To the authors of any administration’s National Security Strategy—mandated for over 30 years now—it is a great state paper, a literary beacon by which government agencies can follow the president’s lead, a work of measured but forceful prose, whose lucidity is undeniable save by the malicious or irremediably malcontent. It is fair to say that no one who picks up these monographs without the painful experience of having labored on or near one shares that view. That is no criticism of their drafters, who are often exceptionally well-educated at advanced institutions of learning, where they have studied strategic thought at the feet of masters. No, the difficulty lies in the process by which the NSS is invariably composed. For that one needs other metaphors.
One approach is to adopt the mind of a tracker examining the scat of a shaggy, shambling woodland beast. The spoor may be aesthetically unappealing, but it provides insight into the beast’s diet, possibly its direction of travel, maybe even its overall health. This metaphor suggests the experience and acuity needed by readers, because unfortunately, the gastric juices of the bureaucratic digestive system dissolve most nutritional content in the NSS. The result are leavings composed chiefly of stern but anodyne injunctions to “preserve peace through strength” or “advance American interests” or “disrupt terror plots” or “identify and prioritize risks.” These are neither new (every administration inserts them or phrases just like them into the NSS) nor particularly illuminating. No one, not even one’s despised and rejected predecessors, would have suggested that we should not advance American interests, after all. The National Security Strategy is invariably as long on adjectives and adverbs as it is short on concrete nouns, numbers, and verbs. It sets no deadlines, outlines no actions, is divorced from budget numbers, and consists for the most part of abstract blither. It is not strategy as any historically minded student of the subject would understand it. It is merely what is left over when actual purpose, real choices, and important decisions have failed to pass through the alimentary canal.