This Month at the War College: January
In January 2012 at the National War College, students have begun their study of the context for strategy–a critical component of the overall logic of strategy presented during the year–by examining the domestic context, the American political process and national security policy making. NWC Core Course 6400, “The Domestic Context and U.S. National Security Decision Making,“ begins with a brief look at the founding period and progresses rapidly through elements of U.S. governing structures to a detailed examination of the policy-making process, such as White House culture, the NSC, interagency negotiations, civil-military interactions, and the role of Congress.
“The premise of this course,“ explains the 6400 syllabus, “is that national security strategy, and strategic decisions, are not made in a vacuum.“ They are “in part shaped by, and help shape, domestic political debates and processes occurring at the time of the decision.“ Understanding the domestic context is essential because “a strategist may design the perfect strategy and tactics to deal with a particular international circumstance, only to find that the strategy is not feasible for domestic political reasons or becomes altered as it moves through the policy process. Or the strategist may discover that implementing a particular course of action may change the domestic political debate in unforeseen ways, with implications for the sustainability of that strategy. For pragmatic reasons, then, understanding and anticipating domestic influences on and the implications of strategic decisions are vital to successful strategizing.“
The director of the course, Dr. Colton Campbell, puts the essential concept behind the course simply: “You can't design a strategy if you don't include the domestic political element. It seems to me, Campbell continues, “where our graduates are going in their careers, they will have to understand the political arena at least as well as any of the other elements of strategy. The higher you get, the more political elements of strategy you have to deal with.“
The course exposes students to key readings on the domestic context, from the Constitution and Federalist Papers to foundational texts such as Gordon Wood's book The American Revolution and Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition. On the policy–making process, students read such books as Richard Haass's The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur and David Rothkopf's Running the World. This in addition to dozens of articles from such experts as James Lindsay, Ronald Dworkin, Kurt Campbell, Ronald Brownstein, David Gergen, Morton Halperin, James Locher, Samuel Huntington, Richard Kohn, Paul Light, and many more.
The course has so far featured speakers such as legal scholars John Yoo and Bruce Fein, debating presidential prerogative in the war on terror; lawyer, constitutional scholar and government practitioner Harvey Rishikof on national security law; Walter Oleszek, one of the nation's leading authorities on Congress; and a panel of the Washington Post's Dana Priest and the New York Times's Elizabeth Bumiller on the press.
Campbell explains that the design of the course has remained consistent for a number of years, and is built on a basic framework of elements that students ought to understand to grasp the character of the political arena. “What key variables do you need to understand,“ he asks, “to look at the domestic context?“ He explains that the current course design is built around “five overriding keys“: the essential character of politics; people and personalities and their role in determining outcomes; the decision-making process; the organizational cultures of services and bureaucracies; and precedents that guide choices within the system. Together these five broad areas provide the architecture for the course and its themes.
Campbell reflects that most War College students have similar reactions to the course. One of the most interesting–and surprising–is that “Students will consistently say, 'I thought I knew about American politics from high school. But I realize now that I actually didn't know that much.'“ It's partly a function, Campbell explains, of “the stage at which they're learning. Encountering material is different for our students at 42 than it was at 22.“
At the conclusion of Course 6400, the War College years transitions from the domestic context to the global, with Course 6500–a survey of major international trends, themes, and the current challenges faced by key countries around the world.