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In the age of the national strategy
Media General News Service


December 05, 2005

WASHINGTON - I have issues with clutter.

I would say I have a clutter problem, but problems are so last century. Nobody acknowledges problems anymore. I tackle my issues by buying a book on conquering clutter.

Does that get rid of the clutter? Alas, no. It gets me a vision of pile-free tabletops and organized closets. It gets me a plan, steps, encouragement, hope.

It gives me a strategy.

But a strategy alone won't make clutter go away.

On the national level, Washington's answer to the issues formerly known as problems is the National Strategy. President Bush is especially keen on National Strategies. We currently have:

The National Drug Control Strategy;

The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention;

The National Strategy for Homeland Security;

The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism;

The National Security Strategy;

The National Numeracy Strategy;

The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace;

The National Strategy for Maritime Security;

The National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets.

That's not all, but you get the idea. We're hip deep in strategies.

And yet polls show that people feel the country is headed in the wrong direction. They feel less secure, not more. Maybe what people want is fewer strategies and more action.

Here's the life cycle of a National Strategy: The president makes a major speech and explains that the government is on the case. All necessary resources will be devoted to these important challenges. We will skimp on nothing. For a day or two, everybody dissects the National Strategy. And then the National Strategy is never heard of again.

I wonder if there's a whole library of National Strategies somewhere - their energetic red and reassuring blue covers gathering dust on shelf after shelf.

A strategy, according to the dictionary, is "the science of planning and directing large-scale military operations," particularly moving forces into the best position before they confront the enemy. There's the problem.

We're always moving our forces into place on one issue after another. We keep waiting for the promised victory. We want to win just one of these wars - on poverty, on drugs, on illiteracy, on fat, on terrorism. I'll bet psychologists will discover there's an inverse relationship between the number of strategies a country pursues and the national level of calm.

Last week, President Bush defended his course in Iraq, urged patience and issued the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a 38-page document with laudable goals but no timetables.

Democrats complained that there was nothing new in the president's strategy. It wasn't "a coherent, detailed plan" to exit Iraq. They don't have one either, but no matter.

Everybody wants victory in Iraq, but the president's strategy read like a public relations campaign. In 35 pages, it uses the word victory 34 times, strategic 34 times and strategy 46 times.

It never mentions we have a problem in Iraq. But we do have challenges. Do we ever.

The Victory in Iraq strategy has eight strategic pillars. The first is "Defeat the Terrorists and Neutralize the Insurgency." Check.

All the best National Strategies have pillars.

Last month, the president brought out his National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. The flu pandemic strategy had three pillars. The first: Preparedness and Communication. Check.

All these pillars remind me of that Bridge to the 21st Century Bill Clinton was always building. Where did it take us anyway?

We live in an age of proliferating strategies.

Last week was a two-strategy week for President Bush. A day before his National Strategy on Iraq, he said in El Paso, "We have a comprehensive strategy that says we're going to enforce this border. We're going to prevent people from coming here in the first place." Check.

It wasn't always this way.

When President Kennedy made his famous speech to Congress in May 1961, launching a space program that would send a man to the moon, he was able to state what he wanted to do and a timetable for it in one, simple sentence:

"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

Kennedy then laid out various steps such a major task would require, and he said, "In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon - if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

Kennedy believed that if the Soviet Union reached the moon first, it would be a problem for the United States. He set out to solve that problem with the help of the entire country. He didn't use the word strategy once.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News service.
E-mail mmercer(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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