December 1, 2011  

2011 in commentary

A look back at the year’s most intriguing and influential pieces

Two decades after the Cold War and 10 years since 9/11 “changed everything,” strategists are still casting about for the next grand strategy: a clear vision of the American future and some ideas about how to get there.

The year’s highest-profile bid to create a successor to Containment — laid out in a 1947 article by “Mr. X” — was undoubtedly “A National Strategic Narrative” (Woodrow Wilson Center, May). Published by a think tank so as not to be mistaken for U.S. policy, the piece was written by “Mr. Y,” the pseudonym for Navy Capt. Wayne Porter and Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, both special assistants to the chairman for strategy to Adm. Mike Mullen, then the Joint Chiefs chairman.

The piece argued, in the words of its preface, that the U.S. should aim “to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.” The preface itself, written by Princeton professor and former State Department policy chief Anne-Marie Slaughter, was widely quoted for its call for “a national strategic narrative” that answers the questions: “Where is the United States going in the world? How can we get there?” Coupled with the release of the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy, widely panned as inadequate, the piece touched off a new debate about the shape of grand strategy.

Many of those who gathered at a November grand-strategy conference at National Defense University were optimistic, but the year saw plenty of pieces that foresaw decline, including Stephen Walt’s “The End of the American Era” (The National Interest, November/December).

The year saw the Obama administration sharpen its strategy for the Pacific region. The president underlined an “Asia pivot” with a November swing through the Pacific Rim, building on groundwork that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “America’s Pacific Century” (Foreign Policy, November). In her article, Clinton declared, “We must create a rules-based order — one that is open, free, transparent and fair.” And who will create and nurture this order? “We are the only power with a network of strong alliances in the region, no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good.”

But as the White House strives to devote more attention to Asia, its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and operations ramp up in Yemen and various African countries.

Much discussion has surrounded the administration’s decision to step up targeted killings in Pakistan using missiles fired from Predator unmanned aircraft. COIN guru David Kilcullen has been sounding alarms for at least two years; this year, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann tracked the intensifying campaign in “Washington’s Phantom War” (Foreign Affairs, July/August).

Also of note were “On the Eve of Afghanization” (AFJ, August) by Joseph J. Collins; “Understanding the Role of Tribes in Yemen” (Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, October); and “The Right to be Right: Civil-Military Relations and the Iraq Surge Decision” (International Security, Spring) by Peter D. Feaver.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates stepped down over the summer, departing amid a wave of general approbation; one naysayer was Bernard I. Finel (“The Failed Secretary,” AFJ, September). Echoing worries by the grand strategists, Finel charged Gates with tunnel-vision on the present and neglect of the Defense Department’s future.

Finally, two pieces I can’t help but recommend:

• Gen. Martin Dempsey, Mullen’s replacement as JCS chairman, was “only” the leader of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command when he penned “Building Critical Thinkers” (AFJ, March). But his declaration that leadership development must be the service’s top priority, and his emphasis on education as its pillar will no doubt resonate throughout the military as he serves out his tenure.

• A more specific point is presented in “Flight Simulation for the Brain: Why Army Officers Must Write” (Military Review, November/December), by Army Maj. Trent J. Lythgoe. The runner-up for the Army Command and General Staff College’s MacArthur award for writing on military leadership, Lythgoe asserts what we all know: If you can’t write clearly about a subject, you probably aren’t thinking clearly about it.

Thanks to AFJ contributing editors Joseph Collins, Dan Green and P.W. Singer for suggesting several of the pieces on this list.