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Toolbox: Getting Serious About Strategic Planning

Authors: Paul Lettow, and Thomas G. Mahnken
September-October 2009
American Interest


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.

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