Delusions of 
Grand Strategy

The Problem With Washington’s Planning Obsession

Strategery: President George W. Bush with his foreign policy advisers, September 2001. ERIC DRAPER / WHITE HOUSE / GETTY IMAGES

In February 2015, when U.S. President Barack Obama released his second and final National Security Strategy—a formal outline of the administration’s foreign policy—it was met with the usual fanfare. Critics and defenders debated its principles and priorities. Prospective presidential candidates piggybacked off the release to highlight their own security agendas, hoping to score political points and broadcast their resolve. Others were simply relieved that the president, who often seemed allergic to explaining his grand strategy, had given voice to one.

The periodic production of a national security strategy has been an American ritual since 1986, when the Goldwater-Nichols Act required the president to submit an annual report to Congress. In theory, strategizing is supposed to make the country safer. As officials debate competing strategies, the poorest policy options should fall by the wayside. The public debate following the final document’s release should bring democratic transparency to a

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