\WASHINGTON -- Two Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan this week while President Obama was in Asia to proclaim a new U.S. strategic focus on China and the Far East.
In the meantime, armed clashes were breaking out in Syria with rumbles of a Middle East war that could embroil Israel and Turkey, a NATO ally. Iran raced to build nuclear bombs. The Pentagon sent U.S. special forces to Uganda to hunt religious fanatics and sent warships to the Red Sea to hunt pirates, while the most immediate scare for ordinary Americans seemed to be the potential for a severe recession set off by Europe's financial crisis.
If there's a coherent, grand U.S. strategy here for keeping Americans safe, secure and prosperous -- what is it?
Where are the priorities? Who's thought through the long-term consequences of today's reaction to crisis? Where's the blueprint from which the Obama administration's plan to spend $4.5 trillion on national security over the next five years is built?
As the U.S. troops leave Iraq and begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, does the United States need a big ground combat force? Or, if its attention is turning to Asia, isn't a build-up of naval power in order? Is boosting trade with China more important than helping rescue debt-ridden European economies?
Senior administration officials and strategy experts acknowledge that what passes for American grand strategy is probably obsolete and irrelevant. That would be the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2010, which says there is "no greater threat'' to America than nuclear proliferation; and the National Military Strategy released by the Joint Chiefs of Staff early this year. This document says the U.S. has a "vital interest'' in south central Asia, "the epicenter of violent extremism ... that is why we are at war'' in Afghanistan.
With its existing strategy documents clashing, the prospect of deep cuts in defense spending has sent the administration scampering to devise a new strategic blueprint. This one, being assembled at the Pentagon, is promised to be more attuned to the faltering U.S. economy and burgeoning debt, which the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, called the gravest threat to U.S. security.
"There's an opportunity here to be clearer about how we see our interests, about how we see our objectives and priorities, and how we plan to use all of the instruments of our national power to achieve those in a new economic environment,'' said Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon's top policy planner.
"If you want to call that a new grand strategy, okay,'' she told The Huffington Post with a tone of doubt.
Pentagon officials said recently that after weeks of study, this strategy review is almost finished. "We are in the process of finalizing it,'' said Pentagon spokesman George Little. "This is a methodical process even if we live in un-methodical times here in Washington.''
But outside the Pentagon's gray walls, there are growing questions about whether prospective budget cuts are securely linked to grand strategy, and whether the highest priority missions are funded.
"What is the risk to the national defense of our country if we continue making some of the cuts to defense we hear being discussed in Washington?'' demanded Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) at a recent hearing of the House Committee on Armed Services.
"There are never enough resources to eliminate all of our risks, but there must be a strategic assessment to underpin the decisions,'' he said. "Instead, I feel that currently the DOD is just responding to budgetary pressures, the result of which could severely degrade the military's ability to operate.''
The lack of strategy has already cost significant American blood and treasure, many experts say. In Iraq, the 2003 invasion ignited seven years of unintended and bloody warfare. In Afghanistan, a decade of war has brought the United States no closer to its initial goal of denying sanctuary to Islamic extremist terrorists, some senior officials acknowledge.
"When we went into Afghanistan in 2001 we didn't have much of a strategy,'' a senior official involved in Afghanistan policy said last week. As a result, "we have helped build an Afghan state the Afghans can neither afford nor manage, and we've not figured out how to deal with Iran's troublesome neighbors, Iran and Pakistan.''
The senior official spoke on condition that he not be identified because he is not authorized to discuss strategy in public.
In Afghanistan, Army Spc. James R. Burnett Jr., 21, of Wichita, Kan., and Pfc. Matthew C. Colin, 22, of Navarre, Fla., were killed in Kandahar on Nov. 16 in an IED blast., the Defense Department reported. Since 2001, 4,968 Americans have been killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But adjusting the Pentagon budget to current threats isn't enough for an era of accelerating change, many strategists say. The United States maintains the world's most powerful and experienced military forces, according to almost all measures, but smaller states and insurgent groups have acquired precision weapons that can hold U.S. forces at risk.
Moreover, as President Obama recognized in his Asia trip this past week, American security relies not just on raw military power but on helping to maintain stable trading relationships with emerging economies. That is why, Obama said in a speech to members of the Australian parliament, that he has "made a deliberate and strategic decision -- as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future...''
And that, some say, demands a new grand strategy to pull together and prioritize military (Iran) and economic threats (Europe) and challenges (China, U.S. debt), and to mobilize all aspects of American power against them.
''Today our security lies as much or more in our prosperity as in our military capabilities. Our vocabulary, our institutions, and our assumptions must reflect that shift,'' writes Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and former director of policy planning at the State Department.
"If we are truly to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in the deeply interconnected world of the 21st century, then we need a new blueprint.''
The beginnings of a new grand strategy have been hatched by two military officers working on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were asked to grapple with concepts for a new U.S. grand strategy.
Instead, what they came up with was what retired Marine Col. Mark "Puck'' Mykleby, a former F-18 fighter pilot, calls a "strategic narrative.'' It's designed as a framework within which to develop an entirely new grand strategy that looks not only at conventional security threats and military responses, but at such challenges as food and energy security, global climate change and international trade, according to Mykleby.
"It is time for America to re-focus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow,'' Mykleby and Navy Capt. Wayne Porter write in the narrative.
"It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement.''
But some U.S. officials and other observers say there is little chance that such a sweeping new examination of strategy will take place. Especially not in an election year, with Congress and the White House consumed with budget and debt issues.
"It is hard to do,'' said Flournoy, when asked why the United States seems to have so much trouble articulating a grand strategy. "In periods of resource plenty, you're not forced to make the hard decisions, not forced to make decisions about where to place emphasis and where to accept risk,'' she said.
Americans "are terrible grand strategists,'' said Gordon Adams, professor of foreign policy at American University's school of international service. Adams managed national security spending for the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
One reason may be that politics forces a short planning horizon on the White House, the Pentagon and Congress -- people are impatient to see results. Crises rise to command attention.
"The last time we had a true grand strategy was in the late 1940s,'' when George Kennan and Paul Nitze engineered what was to become the Cold War strategy of "containment'' of the Soviet Union, Adams said.
The Cold War has been over for two decades, he observed. "Crafting a truly innovative strategy now, almost three years into the administration with all that's going on ... I don't see it.''