Stepen D. Biddle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Victory in the Information Age: Conversation with Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; January 27, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Grand Strategy

Military strategy, which is your main focus of this book, evolves from the choices we make about grand strategy. I know you've written about this, and I want to talk a little about that because during the Cold War when we were in a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, there was a lot of talk about grand strategy. There has been less of that in the way of public debate, even though the administration has been very articulate in defining one version of a strategy. In your article you compare two possible grand strategies for the United States, one adopted by the administration. Let's talk a little about that. What do you see as the goals of the Bush administration grand strategy, and what are the implications of it for what we can do in the world?

It's a harder question to answer than it sounds in that the administration, I don't think, has done an adequate job yet of making some basic choices that are fundamental to any grand strategy. Who's the enemy? What are our war aims? What kind of end state is our strategy designed to accomplish? The administration has been quite vague on these basic fundamentals. There are two broad alternatives for filling in the gaps and for connecting the dots and constructing a coherent, fully articulated strategy in the circumstances we find ourselves. For lack of better terms, I call these two broad alternatives containment and rollback, largely because of their echo of certain similar debates during the Cold War. They represent very different choices with respect to how ambitious a set of war aims and end state do we as a nation want.

You could imagine, for example, that our objective in the war against terror is to bring the threat of terrorist violence in the United States down to very, very low levels, something approximating complete elimination of the terrorist threat. Alternatively, you could imagine another group of people saying, "Terrorism is a fact of life. Life is unfair in lots of ways and terrorism is one of them. We are not going to try and eliminate this. What we're going to try to do is cap its virulence. We're going to try and reduce the level of terrorist threat down to something like what it was on September 10, let's say -- no World Trade Center events, but we'll tolerate lots of other terrorism at lower levels of violence." The former strategy would involve rolling back the threat of terror to a very low level. The second strategy involves containing it at dangerous levels but not quite as bad as what we discovered on September 11. Those two very different sets of objectives imply a very different set of strategies.

If we impute to the Bush administration an emphasis on rollback, which I think is fair given what they're doing, the term "rollback" is an attempt to capture what their goal is, which is to roll back all the autocracies in the Middle East, to "drain the swamp," to create a set of democracies there that would then make it very unlikely that terrorism would emerge. Is that a fair statement of what you're trying to tease out of what they're doing, either explicitly or implicitly?

That's right. If you believe that the threat of terrorism has to be driven down to something close to zero, it's not going to be enough to knock off the occasional terrorist leader. You get Osama bin Laden but the underlying conditions that gave rise to Osama bin Laden will give rise to another one that's just as virulent. If you really want the threat of terrorism near zero, you have to solve the underlying problem that gave rise to al Qaeda in the first place, and it's often believed that the underlying problem here is a liberty deficit in the Middle East, that a collection of autocratic, illegitimate, unpopular governments, in the process of oppressing their societies to keep themselves in power, give rise to a series of frustrations that Osama bin Laden learned to weaponize and redirect against the United States. If that's your diagnosis of the underlying problem, the only solution to it is fix the liberty deficit, which requires that you politically re-engineer a region that's full of illegitimate, oppressive autocracies. That's a very demanding program.

The assumption here is that it is a war on terrorism and the adversary is the terrorists generally, and not just in one place but all over the world to the extent that they form a coalition, which may or may not be true. This is the priority under that theory. But you talk about an alternative set of problems, putting aside terrorism as of lesser importance, and emphasizing dealing with the other great powers in the world. Talk a little about that other possible grand strategy.

At the moment, we're in what political scientists describe as a unipolar world. There's one superpower, we overawe all other contestants, and that has a variety of advantages for the United States and some would argue for the world at large. But no condition of unipolarity is ever going to be permanent. Sooner or later -- the Romans fell, the British Empire fell -- sooner or later, there will be a contestant with the United States for this status, and an important responsibility of grand strategists and the American political elite is to delay, if we can, this condition of the rise of a rival power. Even if you think that the war on terror is our first priority, it remains at least an important responsibility to worry about the longer term future and what's going to happen if China, perhaps, or if India, or if some other rising power comes to challenge our current position in the world in ways that could create a risk of a much more serious military conflict at much higher levels of intensity with much higher levels of loss of life, and try and do what we can to postpone that day. It may be inevitable but it can be later rather than sooner.

This choice between a war on terrorism as the first priority and a strategy for dealing with the other great powers to map out or work toward a future in which our relative power remains very high -- these two goals of a grand strategy conflict with each other, you're suggesting?

Inherent in the idea of strategy is the idea that your goals are always in some degree of tension. People don't like that, and military people and strategists don't like it either, but at the end of the day, there are always goals in tension. In this particular problem, the goal of prosecuting the war on terror and prosecuting the delay of the rise of a superpower challenger are in tension in a variety of ways. One would be if you're going to pursue a rollback strategy against terrorists, you have to be very ambitious and expend enormous amounts of treasure and effort in a very risky attempt to re-engineer an entire region of the world. That tends, other things being equal, to run down your economic condition in ways that make it easier for a rising challenger elsewhere to eventually equal your economic power and pose that kind of great power threat to you. If instead we were more conservative and husbanded our resources in an attempt to delay the date at which our GDP is overtaken, perhaps, by a rising China, you would not be able to conduct the war in Iraq, for example, as energetically as we're doing, and the prospects for political change in the Mideast would be much more distant, if realistic at all.

You're suggesting -- and I think that your analysis is fair to all sides in this debate about what the course should be -- that in focusing on the war on terrorism we are attempting, or the administration is attempting, to deal with what they see as the compelling threat in the short term, whereas those who emphasize grand strategy are putting off dealing with that present threat in order to secure a long-term future. Is that fair?

I think all of these positions are defensible. In fact, not only do I think they're all defensible, I think a choice among them ultimately rests on value judgments that analyst folk like me can't resolve. The question of risk preference, for example: rollback might solve the problem but it's very risky. Containment is less risky in the short term but can't solve the problem, at least not anytime soon. It's like the difference between swinging for the fences and trying to get a home run but risking a strikeout, as opposed to someone who swings for contact, hits only singles but very rarely strikes out. No analyst can tell you that swinging for the fences is the wrong thing to do. It's a function of how risk-tolerant we are as a people. In fact, arguably one of the fundamental political processes that elected leaders should conduct is to manage a national debate over how risk-acceptant are we. How ambitious does the public want to be here, and how much of a cost and a danger are they willing to accept in order to pursue that?

I guess as a strategist the virtue of what you're doing is trying to analyze these choices and lay them out without the emotion of the moment that might color the debate one way or the other.

I'm trying to lay bare the choices and illuminate the costs and benefits of them each, and to show where the value judgment lies as a way of facilitating a political debate that I can't, at the end of the day, resolve about what are our values. But I think at the moment, without laying that bare, what we get is a very muddy process with people arguing past each other and debates that don't converge, because so much of what is objectively analyzable about the problem remains opaque and misunderstood.

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