Grand Strategy: Posen on Obama

barposBarry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, arguing that “War with Iraq is not in America’s National Interest.”

He isn’t always right.  A little more than a year ago, he was pretty sure that Dick Cheney would get his last big wish in office, a thundering strike on Iran:  “There will probably be a series of air raids,” Barry Posen begins, that will leave the mullahs’ regime standing but lethally enraged, and will thicken the air of a universal American confrontation with Islam. And then…?  But he wasn’t so far off. “It’s going to take an accumulation of costly mistakes to turn the elite in this country toward a policy of realism and a policy of restraint,” he said to me.  Perhaps a decisive presidential election would set another direction.

Or perhaps not. Posen argued “The Case for Restraint” in The American Interest Online:

“The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other… ”  

In James Der Derian’s global security class at Brown University this month, Barry Posen read the Obama tea leaves and appointments — and judged that the President-elect may yet be in the grip of habit and sentiment in the realm of strategy:

Judging from the cast of characters and even judging from things that President-elect Obama has said himself, he’s not very far from the grand strategy consensus I described and in fact, in some ways, you could say, based on things he’s said, he’s even more energetic about certain things. And certainly some of the people he’s advised are more energetic. You know, I can find you somewhere in my briefcase…chapter and verse from say Susan Rice about the need not just to do something about Darfur, but to do very, very forward things about Darfur. Senator soon-to-be Secretary of State Clinton same. The president-elect has talked about humanitarian miliary intervention as if its something you should do. Samantha Power is a friend and advisor of his. So you could easily come to the conclusion that the change is going to be at the tactical level. The kind I talked about, you know, more emphasis on international institutions, more emphasis on diplomacy and, you know, probably more emphasis on doing something about nuclear weapons.

But if you believe that president-elect Obama does have a kind of a sense of proportion, a sense of priorities, a sense of scarcity, an ability to weigh, then I think you can look at this whole panoply of things that are there in the consensus and sort of say what’s likely to be priority and what’s likely to be second priority, right? And something’s got to give.

So my own guess is, when I take off this grand strategy prescriptive hat that I had on and try to assess what’s more likely, I think there’s a set of inter-connected issues that start in North Africa and end somewhere on the Pakistan-India border that are in some sense all have to be addressed at once and this was sort of the message of the Baker-Hamilton Commission… So if you look at all the things that need to be done there: some attention to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, attention to the Indian-Pakistani dispute, trying to get out of Iraq, trying to do something about Iran’s nuclear program, trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan because there’s a lot of loose talk about escalation but also some other talk that says maybe we better stop and think, right? And these things all have somthing to do with the other, right? So addressing all those things would be a project for an administration. Eight years, address those things. Fix one or two. Prevent the rest from going completely to hell; you’re a hero, right? So that project alone, which they’re out front on and they’re stuck with, I think is going to drive their activity.

Related Content

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Thank you Prof. Posen. Thank you Mr. Der Derian. Thank you Mr. Lydon. And thank you to the other speakers in this conversation.

    I’m not a public/private wonk, but I’m going to comment upon this talk anyway.

    Regarding scarcity: if scarcity is considered axiomatic, then there will always be conflict. Moreover, if your world view is framed chiefly by scarcity as the main force to a strategic vision, as opposed to say cooperation, or some balance between these concepts, then there will be attendant distortions in strategic and tactical choices; choices based upon fear and anxiety. Distorted because there is more than one conceptual framework for which to view our world, even from a military hard power mindset.

    Scarcity certainly exists, but it is pushed with reality distorting vigor, especially by those who claim to be realists. This becomes an obstacle for negotiating a crucial element of any adversarial rapport: understanding what an adversary wants/needs, and how to want/need some fraction of this. All sides participate in this process to avoid a last-man-standing scenario. There are no shortcuts. It is slow. It is process orientated. It must be results driven. It is likely incremental and iterative, requiring a mature capacity for patience and transparency. It creates the potential to expand options for outcomes.

    There are other axiomatic choices that should be added to the mix when formulating strategic vision. An axiom which leads to choices based upon fear and anxiety, is an axiom meant to deliver perpetual conflict. This outlook does not quiet the storms in the minds of humanity, it gins them up. Power is brokered in the hearts and minds of human beings. It is where leverage resides. It is why morale is an important component of any military conflict, both in theatre and the home front. Morale is a largely qualitative and emotional component, but nevertheless, intrinsic to any comprehensive strategy. It is why winning hearts and minds plays a significant rhetorical and strategic role in discourse. This is one example of many. Jazzman writes quite well upon the problems of outlook based upon fear and anxiety. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading his thoughts on those matters.

    In short: A realism that is based upon an abundance of scarcity and conflict, with no other important conceptual frameworks that are counter, yet clearly exist, is a distorted realism. This is reductionism towards conflict outcomes.

    On to other matter that could have a strategic value: PE Obama and VPE Biden have always struck me as the consummately polished Imperial Managers; meta-viceroys come in from the cold without having ever been in the cold (boomer metaphors are moribund, but it’s all we have to work with for the moment). Comfortable with the levers to power, deft in deploying this power with a breezy gauze of polite and charismatic rhetoric. And of course, all of that is a significant and massive change from the previous eight years, though I doubt it is not exactly the change some felt has been advertised.

    This style of rhetoric is a significant strategic shift in management of imperial power.

    As I’ve mentioned on a previous thread, the change I seek, and feel adds to the strategic vision, is for the U.S. to join the ICC. This would invite prosecutorial scrutiny from an international body with cooperation among U.S. domestic governmental branches. It would make retro-active scrutiny possible. It would either force large actors such as the U.S. to clean up its act, or spread the guilt around to many corners of the global scene. Either way, it is a moment of sea change in geo-political currents, as well as, potential improvement in humanity’s means of dealing with conflict and confrontation. Or a boondoggle of global proportions. Regardless, the idea of justice and working within a legal spirit of international law is a missing note in the current U.S. political use of tactical power. Again, this helps get buy-in and wins hearts-and-minds. It reduces and neutralizes rhetorical power from U.S. adversaries.

    I would also welcome the U.S. joining the Kyoto agreement. The primacy of environmental issues makes it both an economic issue and a national security issue, in addition to simply an issue that affects human life. If we’re serious about personal/collective responsibility and stewardship of our planet, the U.S. needs to start to work in organized and cooperative ways with the larger global players and venues. The planet is seen as a resource for exploitation and dominion and not as a partner and habitat. Again, this flows from a viewpoint of scarcity. This mindset tends towards nihilism in its logic.

    PE Obama could probably push on both of these fronts, Kyoto and the ICC, from the bully pulpit, but the costs will likely be excruciatingly enormous and would suck up some portion of his political capital. Moreover, to pull this off, will require horse trading, something I see major obstacles both domestically and internationally. Furthermore, I can imagine future administrations attempting to unravel these types efforts. Risks, risks, risks.

    If one should hope, if one should dream, one should do so audaciously. Our current leader asks no less. We should accept his daring, and raise the stakes.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    I tend to do my posting alla prima, leaving them fraught with errors and screw-ups. First thought, inspired thought. Though my first thought is often expressed poorly. But I feel a necessity to make a minor correction to my previous post: If one should hope, if one should dream, one should do so audaciously. Our newly elected leadership asks no less. We should accept his daring, and raise the stakes.

  • druthers

    It was very interesting to follow Barry Posen’s thought process on this subject of Grand Strategy but the question that seems to be absent is why are we elaborating such a strategy? What is the final objective? Who decides what is “American Interest”.

    When we see the strangle-hold the Corporations have on “American Interest” it seems more and more evident that the military is being used to ensure those interests that often have nothing to do with the American people. These hundreds of bases used to protect oil routes, paid for by the taxpayer, the lives sacrificed to protect these same interests just as they were used in South America from the time of Dulles to protect United Fruit, then in the rest of Central America and South America to gain political control of these countries supported by brain-washing propaganda and flag-waving to dupe the American citizen, are Corporate controled with the help of both political parties.

    The budget no longer serves any domestic interest and if almost entirely devoted to so-called foreign-policy adventures all in favor of private interests.

    Is this the only Grand Strategey?

  • olivercranglesparrot

    My cursory understanding of the motivation for a grand strategy that Professor Posen enumerated: scarcity, connecting and coordinating military and political objectives, useful for accountability (and I’m guessing providing metrics for assessment), communication as a means to coerce and detour adversaries to avoid military conflict.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Apologies to Chris, et al, some things can’t be boiled down to a crisp three sentence logic. At least not initially…

    A post script to my previous comment: Upon a wee more reflection, I went through the process of considering the charter that Professor Posen had for this talk. I have no idea what it is, but I’ve made a good faith effort to try understand it. It could definitely be that I misunderstand the structure for these talks. It could be the case that Professor Posen has to take a narrow focus, in which case, a comprehensive set of axioms/first principles that lead to strategic/tactical choices, cannot be explored within the confines of a talk of thirty minutes to one hour. It’s seems wise council to whittle first principles down to their essence. This seems very reasonable.

    And yet, this is what I find most troubling and discouraging about his talk. One of the first things out of the gate and given primacy is scarcity as omni-driver for strategic vision. From first principles and core values, flow strategic vision and ultimately tactical behavior. I posit that scarcity as omni-driver for human cultural behavior and it’s relationship to physical resources is unprovable, though not an irrational nor unreasoned choice. Become a hungry person without means, and it is omni-driver. Look upon the human community where so many suffer without the basic necessities, and it appears to be the omni-present engine for human behavior and conflict.

    I assume Professor Posen regards scarcity in a variety of quandaries, conundrums, trade-offs, and impingement’s. It would seem to me he would have to include basic necessities within the scope of scarcity. And further, I would suspect that it is plausible that the scarcity of basic necessities are considered an important driver toward conflict in his view, and hence an important contributor it plays in a grand strategic vision.

    (Let me parenthetically digress and suggest that many fungible commodities, such as oil, are not scarce necessities IMO, but a commodified choice meant to maintain a certain kind of life style. A life style for which there exists intense psychological attachment. Energy resources, such as petroleum, have been deployed into the cultural evolution at such a scope and scale as to be beyond the human level of equilibrium between the being and its habitat IMO, causing dis-equilibrium and disassociation’s in contemporary collective psyche. A simple reflection upon the disconnect between various spiritual/religious philosophical systems, for which many people claim to be adherents/followers and a means to understand their existence and purpose, and the abuses seen in the environment are fairly simple example of this kind of psychic tear. Noah was not instructed to Drill, Baby, Drill. I should add, these are not my myths, but they are the myths of very many and inform world view and decisions.)

    To continue: if the scarcity he’s alluding to are above and beyond basic necessities, and these are the driving force of concern to his and other folk who articulate strategic vision, then I believe it should be incumbent upon us in the general population to take a considered pause and ponder this matter. This would suggest a cultural failure, yet a failure that may be correctable.

    It seems to me that when conflict based upon a want that is well beyond the margins, then this type conflict becomes a pornographic spectacle akin to a sports endeavor. And indeed, a form of organized theft as Jacob Bronowski informs us. A failure to resolve problems of an artificially induced nature, requiring a massive allocation of resources, of mind and body, both individually and collectively, into antagonisms of such perverse scale of mortality that accompanies many outcomes, is likely to feel vaguely unacceptable to many (at least to me). Though most are unempowered to enforce cease and desist fiat upon such impulses.

    Most importantly, it is plausible to suggest that this is an unsustainable strategy for a culture, if not our species. If this is the case, the strategic vision is certainly flawed, lacking a comprehensive approach, for conflict solutions will merely perpetuate themselves into the horizon of the future. A Sisyphean enterprise until the boulder finally remittently squashes us.

    A first day lesson from an economics course from many years ago: Economics is the study of scarcity. The analysis of how finite resources are used to meet infinite wants I remember it well. I also remember thinking most people don’t really seem to be capable of infinite want, for life itself is bound by the life cycle of cradle-to-grave; reducing want to zero at its primary boundaries. Beyond the degenerate boundary condition, want still seems to fall below the infinite for some fractional measure of the human family. So, I find this articulation flawed, though extremely orthodox in its manifestation and acceptance as conventional wisdom.

    I have come to think that scarcity/conflict are fellow travelers, joined at the hip. It seems all pervasive, and unnecessarily so. This language has permeated and distorted the viewpoint of life; much like violence peddled upon the media stage. Excessive attention to the point of pornography. A disproportional representation of life. A continual barrage of petty to monumental catastrophes, allowing anecdotal sensation to accumulate into a comprehensive framework for which to understand the world and human culture. Conflict, often violent, the conclusion to scarcity as antecedent. A tidy media packaging scheme. And, an old boilerplate device for story telling and marketing.

    I offer a consideration of hunger and agricultural capacity. Malnutrition, hunger, and starvation are serious and compelling problems across the globe. As are potable water, land distribution, and other such necessities for human sustainability. It would be plausible to come to believe food is a scarce resource, as are the distribution mechanisms to deliver it to people. I contend this is not entirely accurate. There is more than enough productive agricultural capacity in a fraction of the North America land mass to literally feed more than six to seven billion human beings. Moreover, there are a variety of distribution mechanisms to deliver this food to much of the human population. Thus, I contend that a problem that seems fraught with scarcity implications is actually of problem of human will and human imagination. (I am not suggesting the North American people are on the hook for feeding the globe, but it wouldn’t be the worst use of their activities).

    If you don’t enjoy this model for ameliorating malnutrition, hunger, and starvation, then I contend there is more than enough productive agricultural land capacity that would allow every human being alive to grow a sustainable food supply. Hence, land is likely not a scarce resource, though it is treated as such. There is also enough human wisdom and knowledge accumulated and the means through verbal/written language to teach other human beings how to succeed in these types of endeavors.

    These problems are not matters of scarcity in regards to resources. If there is any scarcity, it is a scarcity of will. It is a scarcity of imagination to organize human life in a sustainable way. From an intellectual dimension, these problems exists from a lack of imagination and gumption. From a purely physical perspective the bio-sphere provides enough capacity to sustain life for most if not all human beings. From a moral/ethical dimension, these problems exist from a scarcity of care. And I believe moral/ethical considerations to play a vital and practical role in how people organize their energies. Consider, many military adventures are articulated from both both practical necessity as well as through a moral and ethical framework. Thus, a moral and ethical framework is of paramount importance for consideration. The problem lies elsewhere, it is not scarcity.

    I take food as an example because it is so fundamental to all human life without exception. And, one can certainly understand the need for aggressive behavior if these necessities cannot be met. Yet, these fundamental necessities can be dealt with in other ways than conflict. Yet, they tend to be treated as economic units and not fundamental to human necessity. Economic units are not the necessity, it is an organizing principle and system of behavior. I believe it a false imperative to view necessities such as food, or human beings and their labors, as economic units susceptible to ideological forces or the whims of the allocation of vital resources. Again, this is a formula to cause endless and ceaseless dis-equilibrium and disconnections between psyche and the imposed processes needed for living. Beings suffering from these sorts of psychic tears, tend towards conflict as a means to resolve these pains. First principles are often articulated to accommodate and expand these problems.

    I offer no panacea for repairing this situation. (If I had the magic bullet, I’d be offering the solution on many venues). This is not a cop out, I’m making a critique. I’m pointing out that the problem is mischaracterized in its underpinnings for a strategic vision. Food is a first principle and basic necessity and it need not be commodified and treated as a scarce, economic unit. Labor need not be treated as such either. It is a poverty of mindset which chooses to shackle itself to such thinking. Furthermore, without a correct characterization of these problems of basic necessity, one cannot form a strategic vision in a way that will not distort the situation. It inevitably leads to a conflict oriented mindset and solutions. The old saying: if all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

    I will add that there is evidence (at least I find it compelling) that the mythos of the west and the middle east is built upon this idea of scarcity. And if anything plays a role in how human beings organize their energies, it’s from a mythos shared across time and place. They flow from various sources, but the desert godhead of various regions in the middle east have become the conceptual means of understanding the ordering of things. It holds a primary grip upon us still, in practical matters, as well as, moral/ethical understanding. I do not enjoy the idea of trafficking in conspiratorial musings, but this conceptual means of understanding seems to permeate into even the most secular recesses of contemporary U.S. culture. Old myths and archetypes hold sway over national strategic policy articulation and its execution. Old, yet not antiquated, nor moribund in there presence. An important consideration when contemplating these matters of existential import. A strategic vision which places scarcity/conflict as a center piece, is a vision of existential ramifications.

    There are other possible omni-drivers and first principles that could be integrated into the mind share of first principles for a strategic vision. I mentioned cooperation in my previous post. Cooperation is an important survival mechanism and a first principle in both necessity and ethical/moral outlook. It’s absence in such an important matter as strategic vision, even in geo-political-military terms, seems a short coming in such an articulation.

    Cooperation should not be mischaracterized. To attach ‘cooperation’ to terms such as ‘soft power’ is to misunderstand the practical necessity, for not all matters of necessity should be viewed from a position of leverage and power. This simply continues to invite conflict oriented solutions. It comes across as a way to simultaneously appear humane and macho.

    The encapsulation of such concepts behind a signifier such as ‘soft power’ are vitally important. Ask yourself how you feel about changing the name of the governmental military branch from the Department of War to the Department of Defense and then to the Department of Peace. Or other militarized terms like ‘collateral damage’. These names signify deeper truths about their nature. Or, they become absurd and darkly Orwellian, if not perversely comical and ultimately tragical. This leads to a distrust in communication between government and the general population. A saturation of cynicism occurs. (And I think a cornerstone to PE Obama’s campaign was a desire to restore public trust in government. A large task)

    There are other important first principles that should be integrated into any strategic view, lest it remain bereft except to continue a perpetual conflict mentality

  • olivercranglesparrot

    I am no friend of Power Point. But, I’m going to attempt to summarize my thinking on this matter. It could fit into a lifetime supply of very chubby and benighted fortune cookies. Here are the points of interest, I may expand on a couple of them afterward as time and inclination permit.

    First principles. Expand first principles to accommodate a more comprehensive strategic vision. Expand goals and outcomes to accommodate aspects outside the realm of scarcity/conflict orientation.

    Communication. Use rhetoric that counts, rhetoric that shows some relationship to processes at work and facts on-the-ground. Do it in a firm, but non-antagonist approach. Most of us are not looking for ‘happy’ talk. But realistic strategic vision requires understanding the impact of words and the force with which they are presented.

    Framing. Use framing both as guide and means of assessment of connecting solutions to problems, goals to outcomes.

    Cooperation. It’s part of our culture, our way of being in the world. Silos and islands won’t work as proper metaphors in a hyper-connected world. Headway on intractable or chronic problems can be ameliorated with cooperation.

    Mythos, religion, spirituality. It’s a prime mover and provides core values. From these flow some aspects of human behavior and goals. I find its absence here intriguing and slightly confounding.

    Morale. An important aspect as motivator and the sustaining force in any endeavor. Ignore at one’s peril.

    Environmental concerns. Habit is of primary importance. It plays a key role in most facets of human organization of culture. Ignore at one’s peril.

    Explain the role scarcity. Move beyond the antiquated view. People do not have infinite want for finite resources.

    This is not comprehensive nor intended to be. Simply candidates.

  • prolifer

    President-elect Obama supports fully funded abortion nationally and internationally, and funded embryonic stem cell research, and making abortion a right in law. This is the killing of human beings and so evil that bad things will start to happen – the economic disaster is just a start. That the lights went out in Hawaii while he is on vacation there is no accident, but a harbinger.

  • jazzman

    prolifer The killing of human beings is less than ideal but the evil characterization is a product of a belief system as are the bad things that are predicted. The policies of a president who is prolife as well as those of the previous 5 presidents abetted by both parties in congress who each held majority positions at various times, allowed greed and short term profits to set the stage for the current economic state.

    GWB may be prolife but he is also pro violence, murder and the suffering or deaths of those who might benefit from stem cell research and application. If there were any presidents that could qualify for the “evil” label due to human being killing (a.k.a. MURDER) it would surely be Bushes pere & fils as between them over 1 million Iraqis have been killed, thousands of Afghanis and over 4000 American soldiers killed and 30,000+ maimed and untold psychically scarred for a Chimera.

    I don’t believe in evil per se and don’t characterize people as evil; many are merely misguided and less than ideal. Leaders are well intentioned in their own minds, but they are in thrall to as OCP would say to FEAR and ANXIETY and thus seek to allay their fears by violence as they believe the ends justify the means (they emphatically do not!!!)

    If harbingers were a fact, then predestination would be the prime mover and it wouldn’t matter what one did as they couldn’t have done otherwise.

    Peace to ALL,


    OCP Where are you? I don’t need GPS coords, just the environs. I’m a curious cat.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Hey Jazzman,

    I’m out here in the hinterlands of the Pacific North West. Eastern, Beet Red part of the blue Washington (My life is relegated to outlier status?). Located near, what we’re told is, the largest toxic dump in North America. (Can one trust the EPA on such matters?) This will warm your heart my peaceful warrior friend: my wife and I walk our dogs occasionally at Leslie Groves Park. Ah, yes, Leslie Groves Park. A monument to a hot & cold warrior bringer of mass death, but his namesake park is sort of like walking into a Seurat painting along our stretch of the Columbia River. I saw a lot of Obama signs in front yards near this park. At times, the incongruences are what make life noticeable.

    Our local habitat & history