Does America even have a national security strategy? I ask because the Pentagon is getting ready to promulgate the latest version of same in the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. And because the Obama Administration has given off some big conflicting messages over the past year.
The last QDR came out four years ago in February 2010. Coming as it did after months of heated discussion and negotiation about President Barack Obama's take on the Afghan War -- he chose, amidst many internal misgivings to seriously ramp up the effort there with an Afghan surge to replicate the decidedly short-term success of the Iraq surge -- the national strategy document came with a decidedly anti-climactic air. Getting out of Iraq and succeeding in Afghanistan were the priorities.
The laundry list nature of the 2010 version of our official national security strategy did nothing to add to its intellectual luster. Strategy is about focus and choices; saying one is going to do everything is tantamount to saying one is going to do nothing. Even superheroes can't do everything.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry, assailed by some as a guy "who doesn't do Asia," is wrapping up a big trip to Asia, helping set the stage for a big Obama tour in the spring.
Is Kerry, who seemed to be promoting US military intervention in Syria last year and has spent a tremendous amount of his time and energy pursuing the '70s liberal holy grail of an Israeli/Palestinian solution, part of a grand strategy? Is there a grand strategy that the president doesn't want to talk about?
Whatever the answer, it doesn't feel all that marvelous.
Because it's all taking so long to move along the pivot to the Pacific that Obama unveiled in the fall of 2011 during his big speech in Australia.
Obama chose to escalate in order to negotiate in Afghanistan. But little negotiation with the Taliban has taken place, even when it wasn't being blocked by our erratic man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, one of the remaining artifacts of the Bush/Cheney master plan for Central Asia.
The Taliban have chosen instead to stage unnerving guerrilla attacks -- frequently carried out by security forces working with American troops -- and outlast us as their forebears outlasted the British and Russians before us.
While we stay stuck in the purgatory of our long goodbye to Afghanistan, complete now with Karzai dragging his heels on a residual force and releasing prisoners our commanders consider dangerous,
Meanwhile, events in the Asia-Pacific gather force, with dangerous crises in the East China Sea and South China Sea as China pursues increasingly aggressive strategies to assert control over some of the most strategically significant waters in the world and spurs potential conflict with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other neighbors.
Fortunately, while complex, the Asia-Pacific pivot is nothing like the mission impossible that Bush and Cheney and, in his own way, Obama set out for us in the Middle East and Central Asia in ill-defined response to 9/11.
But we probably look to the Chinese like we are still stuck on the other end of the pivot which Obama announced to wind down out fateful over-engagement with Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia and ramp up our engagement with the rising nations of the Asia-Pacific.
It may not even be clear to China who is in charge of the Asia-Pacific Pivot, if in fact anyone ever was aside from Obama, who of course comes from the Pacific, himself.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was closely identified with the Pivot, as was National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, one of its apparent progenitors. (Aside from the two Presidents Roosevelt, that is.) But the relatively low-profile Donilon -- a political lawyer and manager who I met when he represented former Vice President Walter Mondale in Democratic national convention arrangements and I represented Senator Gary Hart and who got into foreign policy as a manager and PR person for Secretary of State Madeline Albright -- continued his career-long practice of not publishing geopolitical commentary throughout his tenure at the NSC and beyond. And Clinton of course has departed as well.
Even before she left, Hillary muddied the strategic waters by apparently pushing for military interventions in Syria and elsewhere that would have made the pivot to the Pacific impossible from the standpoints of resources and intellectual bandwidth.
Now it's unclear who's in charge.
At times, it's seemed to be Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. But increasingly Kerry -- a classic Atlanticist, despite his heroic Vietnam War record -- has been taking the highest profile trips and meetings. When he hasn't been antagonizing the Israelis, that is, by his lengthy pushing for a Palestinian peace accord.
And when it hasn't been Vice President Joe Biden at the fore. He was our man in the Pacific in the immediate aftermath of Beijing's attempt to impose an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea, including over long-held Japanese islands called the Senkaku, Diaoyu in PRC parlance.
And it was reportedly Biden who called the tune on America's new ambassador to China, veteran Montana Senator Max Baucus.
It was an odd choice, as Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had no particular focus or background on China or global matters aside from his involvement in trade negotiations.
At a time when America needs to be sending multiplex messages to China -- coupling warnings about hegemonic moves with the bright prospect of shared strategies for prosperity and for helping with problems around the world in order to achieve a sort of creative tension -- the appointment of Baucus did none of that.
Of course, it may be that Obama really does have a grand strategy and is just having trouble working it through the system he finds himself in.
Perhaps he went for the Afghan surge in 2009 because he didn't want to fight with elements of the Pentagon, as a young president who never wore the uniform, and felt he could wait while the surge strategy failed.
Perhaps he nearly lurched into a war with Syria last year to alarm the country enough so that even the most reflexive war hawks could see that America has no appetite for another war in the Middle East.
He had, after all, been negotiating secretly with Iran for months. And it was not long after the Syrian melodrama that his administration pursued the interim agreement on Iran's nuclear program.
Perhaps it is really Obama himself who is calling shots on the Pacific pivot, thanking his lucky stars that he has a nascent major ally there in Japan -- something the US never had in the Middle East or Central Asia on a serious operational basis, with respect to our Israeli friends -- so long as Shinzo Abe does not overstep, knowing that there is an alliance to be pulled together from other alarmed Asian nations who not infrequently wonder where the Americans are.
Just as easily, of course, that might all be wrong.
All of which points up how lacking we are in what we need most in America, a sense of anticipatory democracy, in which we carry out full and informed debates on future prospects and pitfalls, seeing the playing field of the future as a whole rather than as a set of disconnected happenings that we lurch into and out of in desultory fashion.
Why do we lack anticipatory democracy? And what might we do about it?
Those are topics for another time.