09/19/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Better Than Lucky

September is a great time for sports, with baseball, football, and soccer going on and hockey and basketball about to start. That and last week's unexpected breakthrough deal on Syrian chemical weapons as at least a temporary way out of what would no doubt be a disastrous move to launch military strikes on Syria reminds me of the saying: "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than be good." Used to describe a team that pulls out a win but probably doesn't deserve to because of the way it played, it also describes a lot of U.S. foreign and security policy for a long time, except we have been able to get away with it.

Much of the reason for that is because we've dominated the international scene for so long, predicated on the appeal of our political idealism and the "American way of life" and of course the overwhelming superiority of the U.S. military, based in turn on our technological, financial and economic power. We've been the New York Yankees of international affairs, able to cover bad front office decisions and a weakening farm system by spending lots of money on the roster and trying to hit it's way out of trouble. And like the Yankees, we're starting to figure out that business model is not working as well as it once did.

For one, the game has changed. Much of our national power line-up has either eroded at least in relative terms -- others have caught up -- or military power in particular is simply no longer as efficacious or appropriate. Asymmetric threats, a shift to distributed power, and the greater importance of the security of communities rather than states are already mitigating many longstanding U.S. advantages, and as information technologies in particular present equalizers to traditional, industrial-era military power. All that, and the fact that, as Churchill said: "We've run out of money; now it's time to think."

The clear public disinterest in the military option in Syria is not so much because Americans are tired of war. They are, no doubt. What they're more tired of is our strategic culture of being so quick to call out the cavalry before considering other alternatives. It seems that every problem of conflict or potential trouble is a nail and thus requires a hammer. And when you have such a big hammer, even the humanitarian interventionists in the Obama administration are too tempted to wield it. Curbed public enthusiasm also reflects a desire to focus on our own farm team -- our primary national strength of our human capital that are our ultimate source of power.

Passion or ideology, though, shouldn't be what drives the decision to use force, as we learned in Iraq. War is indeed a form of communication -- in the extreme. But you don't go to war merely to express displeasure at some despot's deployment of weapons of mass destruction resulting in taking the last 1,000 of 100,000 lives of his own country's men, women, and children. The minute you fire the first missile you become a belligerent, and that's no mere gesture. Being a little bit at war is like trying to say you're just a little bit pregnant. You go to war to change the game, to shape a strategic outcome that you've said, with the use of force, that you're now one way or another committed to. And if you do that, you'd better be prepared to see the consequences of that commitment all the way through, which is something else we should have learned from Iraq.

This is not to say the military option should be off the table. We just need to remember what the use of force really means -- and that military power is best implied and not applied. As the people in the White House, after this last closest of calls, start looking for more martial "optionality" beyond the deal just brokered with the Russians, they might consider something the last president overlooked: the Powell Doctrine.

If we're going to find a solution to Syria, we need to look beyond Syria. It should also be obvious now that military power is not the solution to either Assad's use of chemical weapons or, more importantly, to a civil war that has now burgeoned into a regional struggle between two factions of Islam and their interpretations of governance, complicated by competition for regional influence among Russia, Iran, Turkey. The solution is ultimately political - or diplomatic, which is really what the U.S.-Russian deal over the last week should mean most. But because we've invested very little in diplomatic equities and efforts, we left ourselves wide open for Putin to pounce on Kerry's fumble by proposing something we should have proposed to begin with and return Russia to relevancy in the region -- with the longer term effect of handing Russia equal diplomatic status to the United States for the first time since the Berlin Wall came down.

Larger than even that lesson is that you can't play the game to win unless you have a game plan to win that goes beyond even that game. We got ourselves into this much trouble so far because we had no real strategy -- if you want to call keeping your distance, mudding through, and hoping Assad doesn't really call your bluff on any "red lines" a strategy. Last week's deal was more drop back five and punt than a touchdown, for anyone.

That's playing not to lose, and last time I checked, no team ever stayed on top playing not to lose. They not only had a winning strategy, they had a system that could get them there. That's the clear and present danger: We have neither to win in the Middle East. And if you don't think we don't need to have such a broad-based strategy, then how many presidents have there been since Nixon who haven't been bitten in the backside because he has had to react to some kind of crisis in or emanating from the Middle East, regardless of how much he's wanted to pivot to Asia or focus on domestic priorities?

So what would that strategy look like? Well, it might at least take into consideration some of the following:

For one, we need to offer a communicable vision of how we intend to help shape an achievable future in regions like the Middle East -- namely, participatory representative governance that delivers essential public services, ends minority rule yet protects even those minorities, and promotes humans rights and civil dialogue as a means of managing conflict. It's not the power of ideas that is most propelling change in the Arab world or anywhere else for that matter. It's how these ideas can help change people's lives for the better -- just like here, empowering communities rather than central governments. Obama's speech in Cairo was ultimately a flop because it listed a whole bunch of aspirations, but didn't explain how the peoples of the Middle East were going to get there, and how the U.S. would help them get there.

Second, if the solutions in the Middle East are ultimately political, then we should build our capabilities for such outcomes. If you want peace, then plan, organize, and resource for peace. If you want a winning team, then build a winning team: John Kerry may be the Peyton Manning of diplomats, but no team can win big pinning their hopes on the prolific play of the quarterback. It takes a balanced attack -- offense, defense, and special teams.

And as with the end of communism, soft power will eventually be the deciding factor, and one way we can restore a good amount of that is to lend much greater assistance to the international humanitarian and civil society organizations and countries like Jordan trying to deal with the deluge of Syrian refugees and absorb these populations. It will also help mitigate the immensely destabilizing impact of all these refugees -- and if there's no stability, there will be no peace, which we should also have learned doesn't come at gunpoint. Longer term, through the G-8 or the G-20 and ultimately the World Bank, we could be promoting a Marshall Plan for the Middle East for those countries demonstrably committed to the broader vision stated above, and emphasizes trade more than aid.

Third, while great-power politics and bilateral engagement with key partners like Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt still very much have their place, multilateral mechanisms such as the UN, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council should also be more prominently played -- not only to assure those who distrust our motives and unilateralist urges, but moreso as form of containment of other players (among them Russia and Iran). As with last week's agreement, a larger peace plan should always refer back to these collaborative bodies. One thing we can be doing right now is begin to build momentum towards a UN Security Council Resolution calling for free and fair elections in Syria, considering that Assad's term of office nominally ends next year, followed by a transitional administration for two or three years to allow governance to take hold there and hold a follow-on election. This will require considerable planning and resources - and possibly a peacekeeping force, which should be composed mostly of forces from the region and whose training we can support.

Fourth, at the same time, we could pursue a détente with Russia and Iran -- bringing them into the fold, again to contain them as much as acknowledge their regional roles. While few interests are congruent, some are more compatible. We should also do this more with the Russia after Putin in mind as well as to encourage a softer stance from Iran and a diplomatic solution to the development of Iranian nuclear power that could be weaponized.

Fifth, we can also forge a better working relationship with the European Union -- teaming with them and other stakeholders like Japan and China to fill the huge gap in humanitarian funding for Syrian refugees as well as mitigating the impacts on the infrastructure of affected countries like Jordan. We could also refer more of our military planning to NATO, if only to develop multilateral if not unilateral military options should they be required and thus not have unilateralism as our only viable security option. Such initiatives don't just take advantage of an opportunity to strengthen transatlantic bonds with the other major part of the world that most shares our values and vision. They provide a real and serious counterweight to any attempts by Russia and China to gain undue advantage on the world stage and forward their vision for the world -- and not just the Middle East.

Finally, we should be fostering a peacebuilding approach to stability in the Middle East -- with more emphasis on helping those countries find more home-grown solutions and build their own capacities to sort out their issues rather than imposing external solutions, which obviously haven't worked. Civil society organizations will have much greater effect than U.S. government agencies, but should clearly have their support. Nevertheless, the development of moderate governance capacities for Syria after Assad shouldn't be treated as some cottage industry run out of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is doing a good job but lacks the throw-weight. It should be taken as seriously as a government-in-exile of an occupied European country in World War II, again in coordination with our partners.

A lot of this may sound overly ambitious and unreachable, but that may just be the idea. Besides, consider where we were last week and how we got there. While American power to act alone in many ways has been diminished, only the United States can lead in the ways mentioned above. Russia, China, or even the Europeans cannot. But even if the U.S. proposes such things, it will clearly be above anything anyone else could put out there, concentrate the attention of the international community on these ways ahead, and demonstrate the U.S. as a positive force for change and not just a bully. Do what you say: If you want the moral high ground, you have to take the moral high ground.

And if you want to win, then you have to have a strategy to win and a system that builds the capabilities for winning and promotes what Leon Fuerth calls "anticipatory governance" at all levels, thinking globally and acting locally. Wayne Gretzsky was the greatest of hockey players because he had a better understanding of the game and was able to skate to where the puck was going and not to where it was. Say we can't afford such changes? Sure we can, if we look at re-balancing some of what we could be cutting from the Pentagon to diplomacy and development. Besides, war is a hell of a lot more expensive than peace.

Peace and security is, after all, a team sport -- and most championships are won before the first game of the season is played, as much by the team that's playing the best as the best team. Superior strategy is not an accident. It's the product of a superior system. We can no longer afford to lurch from crisis to crisis -- winning ugly by throwing money and other stuff we have handy at problems. As the once-too-near and perhaps future disaster of the Syrian crisis is again reminding us, Team America has lost much of its margin for error, shrinking further in a decade of austerity. We can't get into the game at the last minute, play catch-up, and expect to win. We need to learn to be better than lucky.

It's a good time of year for sports. Perhaps it will also be a good time of year for strategy.