Solarium for Today

Once and Future Policy Planning: Solarium for Today

Tyler Nottberg

The policies outlined in the Bush Administration's fully revised "National Security Strategy of the United States of America" last September were premature. Given the fluidity of the international situation, it is reckless to assert that preemption should serve as the cornerstone for a new national security strategy. The US and its allies readily acknowledge that they are still trying to understand the complexity of the political-strategic changes now taking place. This past October, as the Administration stepped up plans to strike Iraq, CIA Director George Tenet sent a letter to Congress stating that Iraq would use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons only if provoked. Not coincidentally, North Korea is now moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program and just announced plans to resume missile tests. Meanwhile, recent photographs suggest Iran has similar intentions, and Pakistan, ostensibly one of America's most valuable allies in the war on terrorism, stands accused of supplying North Korea with technology for its weapons. Long-range planners should therefore consider the Bush Administration's document to be a starting point for further debate, not a definitive document.

Even if the US and its allies no longer face a Soviet threat, today's situation is as uncertain as it was in the early days of the Cold War. In its place, the international community confronts the combined threats of militant radicalism, the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and the rise of rogue nations that threaten to use these weapons. Just as the Cold War became a forty-year struggle, the war on terrorism will prove to be just as enduring. In describing the challenges of the Cold War in 1961, President Eisenhower explained, "there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle-with liberty the stake."

Today's policymakers shoulder a task similar to that of their colleagues in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They must assess obscure objectives and identify potential threats while simultaneously crafting policies that further America's long-term economic and strategic interests without increasing risks. In September of last year at the National Press Club, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) described the war on terrorism as a "war on many fronts that requires many means - diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence, economic, humanitarian, and military-for us to achieve victory." With the nature of these fronts still in doubt, and before any grand strategy takes root, the Bush Administration should seek to put a long-range planning process into place that can consider various strategic options for the long war ahead, including the various means mentioned by Hagel.

The planning process itself will influence the substance of the resulting policy. It needs a clear statement of purpose and must provide for a rigorous pursuit of the facts. Most importantly, the President must take charge of instructing it since he will be responsible for making the final decision. In considering the development of such a process, the Eisenhower Administration's Project Solarium offers a useful historical example for what might be done.

Project Solarium
In 1953, President Eisenhower ordered a competitive analysis exercise to review the existing American containment policy. The US and Soviets had gone from being allies to adversaries; the United Kingdom had given way to America as the dominant Western hegemon; and the international landscape was now defined in terms of democracy and totalitarianism. In the wake of Josef Stalin's death in January, the ongoing Korean conflict, and the rise of the Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, Eisenhower wanted to study America's position vis-à-vis the Soviets, and to compare alternative lines of policy and opportunity open to America and its allies.

Containment had evolved from George Kennan's famous "X" article in July 1947 and was refined through a series of National Security Council (NSC) documents such as NSC 20/4 (1948) and NSC-68 (1950). Its basic purpose was to prevent Soviet expansionism and guarantee the security of America and its allies. This was being done primarily through military means. With Stalin's death, however, Eisenhower saw the potential for change. Containment policy provided no definitive guide for what to do. Should the US now attack the Soviets or launch a dialogue with them. The President recognized an urgent need to unite his entire national security and foreign policy team behind a single approach before his Administration could move forward on Soviet policy.

In early 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told President Eisenhower that "time was America's enemy" and that the US needed to "draw a line" to deter the Soviet Union from attempting to expand its sphere of influence or threaten the US and its allies. The President agreed with the assessment that time was critical, but did not see this as a reason for making a snap judgment. He wanted to make an informed decision, which he thought would be possible only if a proper methodology was used. He decided to conduct a systematic policy exercise that would review US foreign policy objectives and recommend a course of action. The exercise came to be known as Project Solarium after the room in which Eisenhower made the decision to pursue it.

After talking further with Dulles, as well as with his Assistant for National Security Affairs Robert Cutler and Assistant for Cold War Strategy Charles "C.D." Jackson, Eisenhower organized three teams of approximately eight people, each of which was to make the best possible case for one of three security policy options. He selected most of the participants himself. These teams were called Team A, Team B, and Team C.

  • Team A would make the best possible argument for the existing policy of containment, seeking to prevent Soviet expansion in Europe while minimizing the risk of general war.
  • Team B would accept containment as a viable policy, but be less tentative about its implementation. It would assert that any Soviet or Soviet-sponsored aggression would lead to general war and threaten massive US and allied retaliation using any means necessary.
  • Team C would argue for "rollback," meaning a policy to halt and then reverse Soviet efforts to hold territory by the presence of the Red Army.

The project lasted for approximately five weeks, beginning in June at the National War College with all of the teams working in complete secrecy. According to those who were involved, even with access to all the latest intelligence, the three teams still relied heavily on the unique knowledge and creative thinking of experts such as George Kennan and then-Colonel Andrew Goodpaster to conduct their analyses. The results of each team were presented to the President on July 16th at a special meeting of the NSC, held in the library at The White House, with the top Administration security leadership in attendance. This would ensure that there would be no misunderstanding of the rationale behind US policy and that his entire team would be united.

  • Team A argued that the US should develop and implement a more dynamic campaign of political and psychological action against the Soviets. The group rejected any strategy that based its arguments on the acceptance of a risk of general war and recommended "waging peace" with US power by emphasizing the importance of negotiations. It also sought to prevent the use of an active military threat from driving national security strategy even though it gave the concept of force an important role to play-i.e., the role of augmenting diplomatic, economic, and political initiatives.

  • Team B warned about the rigid nature of "drawing a line," implying that it could actually increase the risk of war through inflexibility, but argued that a preponderant show of US force combined with a definitive geographical boundary line could lead to a change in Soviet policy and/or a mellowing of the overall regime. Team B further explained that 1) the allies would not readily accept where to draw the line; and 2) this strategy would be extremely expensive. However, it made the case that the external threat to the US ultimately outweighed the threat to domestic economic stability.

  • Team C argued that mere containment was flawed because it had no endgame and let the Soviets read American inaction as fear and acquiescence. It acknowledged that the benefits of "rollback" were speculative, but claimed that political and military actions short of general war (e.g., covert operations and economic pressure) would be an effective way to take back regions from the Soviet area of control until, ultimately, the Soviet Union changed. Therefore, the US must first put indirect pressure on the Soviet Union by engaging its satellite states, then direct pressure on the Soviet Union itself.

After each team made its presentation, Andrew Goodpaster recalls, "The President had been sitting and listening to each one of the presentations, not taking a single note. He then rose and spoke for forty-five minutes, summarizing the three presentations and commenting on the specific strengths and weaknesses of each one. Years afterwards, George Kennan, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, recalled that in doing so, the President had shown his 'intellectual ascendancy over every man in the room...He had such a mastery over the military issues involved.'"

The President said that he would not pursue any strategy for which he could not win the support of America's allies, or in which there was an increased risk of general war. He also revealed his deep conviction that there should never be a total breakdown in international relations based on the build-up of strength. Military means should always be accompanied by non-military measures, and the idea of forcing a showdown was anathema to this philosophy. Eisenhower chose to pursue the course recommended by Team A, as Goodpaster states, because "he wanted to reduce the militarization of the US-Soviet Cold War confrontation."

The end result of Solarium was the formation of the Basic National Security Policy (NSC 162/2). While NSC 162/2 did not represent a radical shift in policy, just as NSC-68 was not a radical departure from NSC 20/04, the exercise itself forced policymakers to justify a number of key assumptions about Soviet objectives and American capabilities. This not only strengthened the intellectual basis for containment as a long-term policy, but conferred legitimacy on the President's ultimate decision to follow the basic recommendations of Team A. The substance of the policy, in other words, had benefited from the process used to design it.

Why Solarium Matters Today
Project Solarium illustrates the difficulties associated with crafting long-term policies. For example, containment was not spontaneously created. As policy cycles continue to accelerate and policy timelines are shortened, it is worth remembering that a policy which most textbooks now summarize in two sentences took six years to mature and forty more to implement. With the prospect of a long war on terrorism ahead of the US and its allies, it would be wise for policymakers to concentrate their efforts on first designing a comprehensive process for defining and prioritizing America's long-term objectives, then developing practical policies to achieve those objectives.

President Eisenhower was acutely aware of the importance of planning. He often liked to quote from Count Helmuth von Moltke that, "planning is everything; plans are nothing." By engaging in a well-structured planning exercise, one becomes prepared for the unexpected. While the short-term utility of such an exercise might be limited, the long-term benefits are clear: 1) it would provide strategic thinkers with an opportunity to move beyond just the day-to-day problems; 2) a solid methodology would help ensure the integrity of any final decision that is made; and 3) a methodology is reusable whereas a policy may not be.

The success of Project Solarium is a testament to the idea that constructive competition and creative cooperation can help diverging perspectives become productive and not destructive. With the myriad international changes now taking place, it is therefore essential that current debates be managed in a way that furthers long-term US interests. One of the principal strengths of Solarium was its recognition from the beginning that it was a long-term planning exercise. The frame of reference went beyond just one, two, or even five budget cycles. A similar vision is needed today.