How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NSC-68

For you youngsters in the audience (or those who slept through PoliSci 102) , National Security Council Report 68, issued in April 1950 and approved by President Truman the following year, provided the blueprint for America’s conduct of the Cold War.  It’s a sophisticated document and well worth pondering for lessons today — along with George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and “X” article, upon which it draws heavily.

Army Major Jeremy Kotkin has done just that.  In the attached article, The Shadow Course of Action, or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love NCS-68 (243 KB PDF), he calls for a reassessment of US foreign policy as fundamental as that which led to NSC-68:

What is a vital national interest and what is existential to our way of life, is the credibility and influence we must maintain as a world power to pursue other policies of vital interest. We must achieve a positive result in Afghanistan and not be seen to run from adopted partners in Kabul in a fit of capriciousness. To do this, we must understand two lessons: 1) to learn the 5 critical differences regarding national interests so we again do not allow ourselves to think we can force non-vital socio-economic change in another country, and 2) realize that the largely unilateral efforts of the U.S. military are not the solution to a non-military problem.

This is a significant piece, and I suggest you break out a good single malt and dig into it.

Editor’s note:  MAJ Jeremy Kotkin entered the US Air Force from Rutgers University as a communicator in 1995.  In 2008, he transferred to the Army as a Functional Area-59, Strategist, and is assigned to the J5 directorate at the US Special Operations Command in Tampa.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

[CR:  It should also be noted that 36 years before MAJ Kotkin’s transfer in the other direction, I switched affiliation from the Army to the US Air Force.]

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4 Responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NSC-68”

  1. loggie20on 21 Oct 2009 at 8:02 pm 1

    I have begun to skim the paper. Very good!

    This paper deserves a thorough read and thoughtful comment.

    [CR: My impression exactly — look forward to your comments.]

  2. Rob Pon 23 Oct 2009 at 12:22 pm 2

    From Pg 7:

    America maintains its most credible influence and intrinsic power through the “strength and appeal of its idea, and feels no compulsion sooner or later to bring all societies into conformity with it.”

    This is used as part of justification that hard power in Afghanistan is the wrong track and causes us to lose credibility in Afghanistan b/c we are supporting a “non-government” of a failed state. OK, I can buy that.

    Problem is, why did 9/11 happen in the first place?

    We got out of Saudi Arabia when asked and only joined with them on their terms, supported the mujahadeen when they needed it and again only engaged with them on their terms (which was none at all when the Taliban took over) and left Somalia when “our welcome has been wore out” (Congressman Murtha’s words). Basically we sat back and did not impose our government or a puppet regime in any Islamic country, but still 9/11 happened.

    If you have contact information for Maj Kotkin, NIPR or SIPR, I can pose the question directly to him instead of eating up DNI thread space. Thanks!

    [CR: 9/11 was a one-off criminal event. Basically, they attacked a soft target and got very, very lucky. With just a little better intelligence coordination on our part (we had all the pieces), it would have never happened. In any case, that attack was no threat to our national survival and prosperity, some thing which cannot be said of our response.

    What we should have done was gone in, taken out ObL, and left.]

  3. jaylemeuxon 23 Oct 2009 at 2:56 pm 3

    It seems promising, but I found it lacking in specificity. The first eight pages seem meant as a diagnosis, however he keeps restating that we cannot continue down the current path without really explaining what the current path is. It would be useful to spend 3 or 4 of the 10 pages proving that the world is the way he says it is. More time spent tying our current situation to NCS-68 seems promising also.

    I am confused by the assertion that we need to stop attempting to remake (or make) Afghanistan in our image. I thought our mission had retracted over the past couple years to more CT and less nationbuilding (prior to McChrystal, anyway). I’ve seen in White House statements a deliberate attempt to lower American expectations.

    Now that I think about it, Kotkin’s piece seems contradictory in that he states that we have a myopic CT mission but also an unrealistic focus on westernizing Afghanistan. Which is it?

  4. raiserwon 25 Oct 2009 at 3:42 am 4

    The thesis of this article, that the real problem lies in the societal conditions, often supported by the US, that produce “terrorists” rather than the “terrorists” themselves, is obvious, but not widely recognized.

    This message needs to be heard, and acted upon as suggested.

    However, the message runs counter to the long-term past practice of US foreign policy. People do not hear or see what they are not prepared to hear or see. Years of alternative imaging of the world, and acting on those images, make the US government unprepared for the suggested approach.

    Minor point: I think the author advances an excellent, and critical, thesis. However, he needs a good editor. His writing leaves MUCH to be desired.