Preface to

A Search for Strategic Wisdom:

Guiding the Twists and Turns of US National Security Strategy

Answering a Burning Question by Offering a Sense of the Whole

This book is written in the hope that it can make an important, enduring contribution to the literature on US national security affairs and to the public understanding of this vital subject. It focuses on a single burning issue: Does the United States regularly show strategic wisdom – that is, good judgment – when it makes major, path-setting decisions about its national security strategies for handling world affairs? This question deserves to be raised and answered as accurately as possible, not only because the United States often makes weighty decisions in this arena but also because many of these decisions are controversial, subject to intense debate about whether they are wise or unwise. Written from a centrist perspective, this book seeks an insightful answer to the wisdom question by conducting a historical, political-military appraisal of how US national security strategy has unfolded over a long period, from the days of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. For each presidential administration and associated historical period, it identifies the key national security strategy decisions that were made, examines their consequences abroad, and appraises whether they were wise or unwise.

Readers of this book can come away not only with a sturdy analytical framework for evaluating the strategic wisdom issue but also with a well-refined and badly needed sense of the whole. Using the US search for strategic wisdom as its organizing concept, the book offers a portrayal of how US national security strategies acted together to form a composite picture from one historical period to the next and across the key regions of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. To my knowledge, no other book offers a treatment this deeply probing and far reaching. In its pages, the book offers a clear, eyebrow-raising thesis. Over the many decades stretching from World War II until today, the United States has acted wisely about 70 percent of the times that it decided how to handle emerging global challenges but unwisely on about 30 percent of these occasions. Building NATO in Europe is an example of a wise decision; intervening in the Vietnam War is an example of an unwise decision. If this judgment is correct, it suggests that although the US government has a respectable track record abroad, it cannot afford to take its capacity for wise conduct for granted in the years ahead. Strategic wisdom is not a talent that comes naturally. It must be carefully manufactured and nourished so that when it is needed, it will be present.

Richard L. Kugler