Don't Wait for the Next War

A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership


By Wesley K. Clark

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With the end of the Cold War came not the end of history, but the end of America’s sense of its strategic purpose in the world. Then, after a decade of drift, the US was violently dragged back into international conflict. Its armed forces responded magnificently but its leaders’ objectives were substantially flawed. We fought the wrong war — twice — for reasons that were opaque, and few American citizens understood the cause for which their sons and daughters were fighting and dying.

War is a poor substitute for strategic vision, and decisions made in the heat of imminent conflict are often limited by the emotions of the moment. In Don’t Wait for the Next War, Wesley K. Clark, a retired four-star general of the US army and former Democratic candidate for president, presents a compelling argument for continued American global leadership and the basis on which it can succeed — a new American strategy. America needs both new power and deeper perspective. The platform for American leadership is to use America’s energy resources to spark sustainable economic growth, building new strength to deal with pressing domestic issues like the deficit as well as the longer term challenges to US security — terrorism, cyber threats, the next financial crisis, China’s rising power, and climate change.

Such a strategy is not only achievable but essential, and it is urgently needed. This is the true test of American leadership for the next two decades, but it must start now, so America has the power and vision to deal with the acute crises that will inevitably come — in the Mideast, Europe, or Asia.



Gathered around a dinner table, sipping their drinks and glancing at the menus, were members of the Syrian opposition: a young businessman from Chicago, a mild-mannered professor from the University of Arkansas, another younger man who had flown in from London, a local associate, and a couple of others. They were in Los Angeles in April 2013 looking for American support—money, friends, influence, and understanding.

Most lived in the United States, some had grown up here; all knew what America stood for: freedom, democracy, opportunity. This was why they, or their families before them, had emigrated here in the first place, and this was precisely what they wanted to take home to Syria. They also knew that America was incredibly strong economically, rich with technology, capital, and promise, and they were very much aware of what our armed forces were capable of. None of them had served in uniform, but they had a profound respect for US military power, and in particular for what our Air Force could do to help their situation at home.

The situation in Syria was, of course, murderous. It was the spring of 2013, and the death toll in that nation had just surpassed 100,000. I was also at the table that night. I had been invited by an associate who had broad business relationships in the Middle East because of my background and general interest in issues of war and diplomacy. Ultimately, while the Syrians wanted support from the US government, they were also looking for friends and whatever forms of assistance might be available outside of government sources.

So we talked about the struggles of a group of brave men and women to resist a tyrannical and brutal regime. The stunning death toll was only the beginning; millions of Syrians had been driven from their homes, and refugees were flooding into neighboring states to escape the fighting. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan were all affected. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and perhaps Turkey were providing the opposition with weapons, but it wasn't enough.

According to the opposition, the regime was directing the Syrian forces to limit the killing to no more than five hundred persons per day in order to temper the international outcry and fend off forcible intervention. It was constantly testing and probing the international community's tolerance. What could Bashar al-Assad's regime get away with? How much brutality could it apply before the world took action? And to complicate things even further, outsiders, including Iran and its political-military arm in the region, Hezbollah, were now involved in the fighting, too.

As the talk around the table continued, I thought about all the representatives of other groups around the world that had looked to America for assistance—people I had known who had undergone similar struggles in their pursuit of freedom.

First, there was Haiti. In 1994, as director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I had heard the Haitians talk about the repressive junta led by General Raoul Cédras—on an island, a few murders could be a very effective form of intimidation. I had been among those who had helped then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide return to government.

Then Bosnia. In 1994–1995 I had met extensively with Bosnian Muslims and Croats. As a member of Richard Holbrooke's diplomatic team charged with ending the conflict, I recalled Haris Silajdžić, then the number-two man in the Bosnian Muslim government, remarking, in the back of a bombed-out building in Mostar, "I can understand why the Serbs would torture a grown man, but a five-year-old boy?" Any torture was shocking and repellant to me. That war finally came to an end when the United States helped to negotiate an agreement in late 1995.

In the late 1990s, as Serb repression in Kosovo grew, I had heard the concerns of leaders in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states as they emerged from Soviet occupation and sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). President Lennart Meri of Estonia told me about the brutal Soviet occupation in Lapland during the 1930s—women had been mutilated and children fed to wild, starving sled dogs as the Laplanders resisted the imposition of communism. I had been shown a picture of an old man with a pistol to his head—he was the last of the Forest Brothers, men who had been executed in Estonia in 1979 by the KGB, after some thirty-five years of resistance. I had met with the Albanians in 1998, and with the Kosovar Albanians in 1998 and 1999, and I had seen the reports of the Serb mortars falling on Kosovo civilians. A whole family—about 60 men, women, and children—had been murdered. I had heard the Kosovar Albanians speak of their fierce determination to break free of the Serbs. Ultimately, NATO fought a war—we called it the Kosovo Air Campaign, to avoid the term "war"—to end Serb ethnic cleansing there.

Even as a retired General Officer (that's what we call ourselves), I was still occasionally contacted and entreated by individuals and groups around the world seeking a better life for themselves and their families. They knew my reputation from my thirty-eight years of service to the United States Army, during which I led NATO's 1999 operations against Serbia as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, and later, my run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2003–2004. I had spoken with the Iraqi diaspora in 2002–2003, for example, and with parents of Egyptian protesters in 2011. I had spoken with Libyans working to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi, with the members of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), and now, the Syrians. They were all earnest and brave men and women who wanted a life of freedom and greater opportunity—a life worth fighting for. But they were overmatched, and they wanted our help.

Of course, they were also working our system—to win sympathy, to gain influence, to elicit support, and ultimately, to use America to gain their ends at home. Sure, we were always in danger of being manipulated; but, after all, in the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had worked Paris in a similar way, during our own Revolutionary War, as they sought allies and resources to give them a leg up in their fight against the British.

It's hard not to be a little flattered when others come to America for assistance. It's a reaffirmation of our country's values and strengths, especially for those of us who served in uniform or in the defense establishment during the Cold War and remember the ideological struggle of those years. Each of us in some small way was part of the system that won the sweetest strategic victory of the past few centuries—a seventy-year-long, worldwide, geostrategic competition and clash of values in which we prevailed without direct conflict. By 1992, people spoke of only one superpower. We had achieved a unipolar international system built around American values.

As I sat at that table in Los Angeles, I was proud that we were still hosting those who admired our values, respected our power, and sought our help in emulating America. Their goal was to attain the political rights and advantages that Americans enjoy.

But I was also concerned. The Assad regime was proving to be a tough nut to crack, and not just because it was so well entrenched. It had strong support from significant minorities and foreign powers.

The United States in 2013 still had 80,000 men and women in Afghanistan as well as bases and fleets throughout the Middle East, not to mention the largest defense budget in US history. And it was still growing. The men and women in uniform had endured almost twelve years of continuous combat, during which time the United States had suffered 40,000 casualties, including over 6,000 dead. We had spent north of $1 trillion. Hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from varying degrees of posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury would need care for years to come, and the American public was getting tired of war and casualty reports. The so-called Arab Spring was quickly turning into winter. Unrest, violence, and rapid, unpredictable political change seemed to be the new normal. The status quo that Western powers had helped to shape during the Cold War was rapidly changing. Many economies in the Middle East were suffering, and even Egypt's domestic oil industry, heavily subsidized, was failing. There was no peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, despite decades of American effort, and Iran was on a path to nuclear weapons.

Amid all of this, the United States was engaged in implementing a new policy called "the Pivot to the Pacific." The policy declared that the future of American strategic interest lay in Asia. But the public discussion glossed over what would happen to the regions we were pivoting from.

For twenty years, the US armed forces had maintained a strong focus on the Middle East, beginning in 1990–1991 with the First Gulf War, in which over 500,000 US troops were deployed. After that war the United States fostered partnerships in the region, especially with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. We deepened our military relationship with Israel. We strengthened our military presence in the Gulf to deter Saddam Hussein from further aggression. The US Air Force flew Operation Southern Watch from Saudi Arabia, and Northern Watch from Turkey, to maintain pressure on Saddam's regime and to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq. When Saddam refused to permit the reentry of United Nations inspection teams to verify the elimination of his weapons of mass destruction, the United States initiated Operation Desert Fox—four days of strikes against Iraq in December 1998. Subsequently, strikes against Iraq's air defense sites were ordered upon provocation. Throughout this period, the US armed forces and the US Central Command were busy preparing for war. It was, as one very senior US Army leader confided to me in December 1998, "where we wanted to fight."

I had been a participant in much of this—from helping to train and ready the forces that fought the Gulf War, to drawing out the lessons afterward, helping shape deterrent policy toward Saddam, guiding strikes against Iraq, and helping to provide defensive support to Israel in the late 1990s. But for all our effort in the Middle East, what did we have to offer the Syrians by 2013? Had they come to the party too late? Were we through with the region? I didn't have an answer that day in Los Angeles. The meeting ended warmly, but inconclusively.

The next day, the same group met with a US senator. There was another conversation around a dinner table. The senator listened intently as the Syrians described the conditions on the ground in Syria and their needs. But what could actually be done? the senator asked. It was a telling question, one that hinted not only at America's overburdened armed forces but at the lack of a secure, confident strategic platform from which to launch a response.

•   •   •

Today, the United States stands at a fateful crossroads. After two decades as the world's undisputed superpower, we are facing new realities at home and abroad; it is time to rethink our role and set new objectives and priorities.

Not everything has changed, and yet enough changes have taken place to require a careful reassessment. After more than a decade of frustrating US military engagement, the Middle East remains a region in transition and in turmoil. Deployed US forces are rapidly drawing down. But in the process of pulling back, do we become a nation of passive isolationism, mending ourselves and conserving resources in an effort to address domestic concerns, such as our fading educational superiority and our burgeoning public debt? Or do we remain engaged in the world? Do we maintain our focus on the Middle East—still perhaps the most volatile region in the world and a critical area for the world economy—staying engaged, but with fewer military commitments? Or do we redirect our resources and efforts from the Middle East to Asia in response to growing tensions there? What about the blow-up with Russia in Ukraine that has emerged in the midst of this? And, how should we deal with other significant issues and concerns impacting the United States abroad?

Answering these questions requires that we not overreact to the latest crisis or news story from abroad. America will almost always face acute challenges—including threats, conflicts, and humanitarian crises—and will likely face enough of them to keep our operations centers and the White House Situation Room busy night and day. But our responses to various threats and crises from around the world do not themselves constitute a cohesive national strategy that will bring America together and provide a roadmap to our future.

The fractious nature of political discourse in the United States today suggests that we are deeply at odds with ourselves. The lack of a national sense of purpose seems reflected in the vacuous twenty-four-hour news cycles that capture every nuance of the conduct of minor celebrities, the latest airline crash or lurid horror, but fail to track the major forces and conditions impacting the lives and futures of ordinary Americans. You can sense the need for a new strategy in the faces of the young men and women in uniform today. They travel to and from their assigned duties while facing challenges that no longer seem novel, or even winnable—merely dangerous, dull, and costly.

My objective in this book is to make the case that we need to develop a comprehensive national strategy that addresses the long-term issues confronting the United States at home and abroad. And we need to do so in full awareness that some believe America's power is declining, at least relative to China's. In one of his columns on foreign affairs, Leslie H. Gelb, a former senior government official and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that "the real leverage between the United States and China comes down to economic horsepower." Gelb went on to chastise Congress and the Tea Party, quoting old China hand and former US ambassador to China Stapleton Roy, who said, "You talk about getting tough on China. . . . We should first get tough on ourselves."1

Crafting and implementing national strategies is more complicated today than it was in the days of Metternich and Bismarck, when Britannia was the balancing power in the concert of Europe. Today, increasingly powerful multinational and international organizations play leading roles on the global stage. These include international governmental organizations (IGOs) like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the African Union as well as influential nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, or George Soros's Open Society Foundations. Then there are the giant multinational corporations, like Exxon Mobil and General Electric, to name two that are familiar to most Americans. Multinationals may claim a nationality, but often their leadership and perspectives are international—they have little national loyalty and serve no nation's interest, seeking advantages everywhere, maximizing their gains, and minimizing their costs to benefit their shareowners. International security firms can be hired for their expertise, technology, and muscle by any nation, and their sometimes adversaries—nonstate actors like international crime syndicates, drug cartels, and, of course, terrorists—are similarly powerful, fluid, and globalized.

Still, the nation-state remains the fundamental force in world affairs. Nation-states pass and enforce laws and treaties; they tax, regulate, and in many cases support commerce, art, education, and science. States organize, equip, and employ military forces both internally and externally. They have the legal monopoly on the use of violence within their own borders. Absent an international "sovereign" to enforce international law, and despite efforts to provide greater authority to the United Nations to protect populations from abuse and mistreatment within states' borders, states themselves are supreme. Their only restrictions are the rights and authorities they themselves cede and have ceded to international organizations like the United Nations or the European Union.

Strategy, then, is fundamentally about governments' actions, laws, policies, and approaches. But a government's strategies must recognize all the factors in an increasingly complex international environment. For the United States, seeking answers to questions like Syria, and connecting them to larger issues, such as America's vital interests abroad and American prosperity and economic strength, is no simple matter. It's not like Risk, the popular board game, where, to see if you are winning, you simply count "how many countries are in your camp."

Nor is it about popular opinion. Public support is necessary, but it's an unreliable guide. After the First Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush's approval ratings stood at 90 percent for months. But rather than providing an accurate measure of success, the rating reflected a feeling of triumphalism. After Al-Qaeda's strikes against the United States on 9/11, Congress and the American people came together to back our president as we launched into war in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq. It was fear that pulled us together, and the sacrifices of war that held us together for months afterward. But that didn't make our policy choices right or durable. Our decisions may have felt good, but they were no substitute for strategy. So the challenge for the United States is this: At this crucial pivot point, how can the United States find its role in the world without the galvanizing focus of the next war?


The American Strategic Experience

Although its origin is in battle plans, strategy is more than a military concept. It is the way we get things done—how we take and use the resources we have to attain the ends we seek. It applies everywhere, and to every human endeavor, and certainly to almost every successful organization.

Most businesses center their activities around a corporate vision and a strategy—despite being subjected to the buffeting of short-range, quarterly-earnings appraisals by the stock market. Investment decisions usually reflect multiple years of earnings and are built around appraisals of long-term risks and opportunities. Engineering firms plan for the future with elaborate charts and diagrams. States and municipalities normally think strategically about economic development. They do not just trust "the market." Instead they have strategies, creating economic development organizations and planning commissions, holding study sessions, and using other means at their disposal to sift through the challenges and opportunities they face and to propose ways to meet the needs and priorities of the communities they serve. Charities, churches, and nongovernmental organizations all do strategic planning—constructing vision statements, goals, and objectives; adjusting their activities based on self-evaluations; and measuring expenditures against revenues. Good strategies are specific and relatively long-term.

The Need for a National Strategy

America, however, does not have a strategy for our nation that the majority of Americans understand and on which they can agree. The experts and academicians fight over it, as do senators, members of Congress, bloggers, and talk-show hosts. Washington Post editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl, in November 2010, wrote, "This Administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy." John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago professor of political science, wrote in the National Interest, in January 2011, "America adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War." A month later, British historian Niall Ferguson wrote in Newsweek about the Obama administration's "lack of any kind of a coherent grand strategy."1

Professor Daniel W. Drezner, a Tufts University professor of international politics, quoting these writers, said that "a grand strategy consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them."2 But this definition is both too academic and too narrow. In practice, our national strategy has always been built around our political values, our economic interests, and our willingness to use force to defend them. Except among academics or the policy elite, we usually don't lay out the goals and interests with very much specificity, instead acting as though they were just common sense. Ask the average person about America, and he or she will say that America's interests—the purpose of our strategy—have something to do with freedom, opportunities, security, fairness, a good future, and a better, safer, and more prosperous life for our kids. Our interests are our values—or so political candidates often tell us, without ever getting very specific about the conflicts and contradictions inherent in those rather vague concepts.

America is a large, diverse country—but, as Bill Clinton has said many times, what unites us is far greater than what divides us. It's plain to my friends abroad that the interests on which Americans agree are more powerful than those on which we differ, across the political spectrum. However, when it comes to getting there, Americans disagree a lot. For more than a decade, the majority of Americans, in response to public-opinion polls, have said that "the country is headed in the wrong direction." The pattern has been sustained year after year, whether the stock market is up or down, whether we are engaged in warfare or not, and whether we have Democrats or Republicans in office.

Grand strategy is about how nations maneuver to gain their interests abroad. It is in the realm of foreign policy. But that's only a portion of the strategic vision that America needs. President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized that he couldn't afford to bankrupt America to pay for national defense; similarly, America's strategy today cannot ignore the need for a sustainable vision for economic power at home. The power to maneuver abroad derives not only from our strong military and able diplomats, but also, and even more fundamentally, from our economic power. Economic power is hard power. Just look at how Vladimir Putin has used Russia's natural gas supplies to intimidate Europe and threaten Ukraine.

When I discussed the need for a comprehensive national strategy with a Republican friend, a former high official in the Bush administration, his reaction was, "Wes, that sounds a lot like socialism!" He was only half-joking. When did planning for a stronger, more secure America become socialist? Of course, he knew it was nothing like socialism; but his warning reflected the powerful partisan differences that have filled the void created by the lack of a unifying, forward-looking sense of American purpose. Republicans and Democrats have always seen the balance between private and public interests differently, but we have elevated that difference into a huge political obstacle.

Yes, some parts of the US government bureaucracy do conduct strategic planning. The White House publishes a National Security Strategy Report, for example, that posits a vision for the United States in world affairs, assesses the international environment, and describes how America plans to handle it. This document even deals with a number of economic security issues, such as energy—although it doesn't actually go into detail about the economy itself. The Quadrennial Defense Review, conducted by the Department of Defense, looks at the international situation and projects the forces and other military resources needed to support the nation's foreign policy. These plans form the backbone of the country's National Security Strategy. The State Department has created a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review of foreign policy to strengthen the capacity of civilian government agencies to support the National Security Strategy. The White House also publishes the annual Economic Report of the President, which describes the economy in some detail and discusses US fiscal and monetary policies as well as the global economic environment. The Department of Energy will begin doing a Quadrennial Technology Review, and the General Accounting Office published a broad strategy aimed at reducing America's budget deficit.3

What is missing is the big, inclusive picture—a vision that links both our foreign-policy and security issues with our economic power at home, a strategy that is not so completely derived from one administration that it is automatically distrusted by the rival political party. It is a regrettable fact that if we want a unifying political agenda, we have to create it outside of the traditional party structures.

In the United States, most of us believe that that government is best which governs least. A minimalist view of government's function is inherent in the US Constitution and in American political traditions. The fundamental question, though, is what constitutes the acceptable minimalist measures of government. This is the essence of Fourth Amendment issues about privacy, for example, or the "commerce clause" in Article I, and other enduring constitutional questions. Is government only to secure our borders and wage war? Should it intervene in the economy, and if so, for what purposes? These have been recurrent issues in American politics.

One area where we have experienced a linkage of foreign policy and the domestic economy is in free trade agreements, and these efforts illustrate the obstacles we face in trying to create a unified strategy. The first of these, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was highly controversial politically. The arguments in NAFTA's favor were many, ranging from broad support of "free-market principles" to detailed analyses of specific industries. At its signing, President Bill Clinton said, "We have made a decision that will permit us to create an economic order in the world that will promote more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility for world peace. We are on the verge of a global economic expansion sparked by the fact that at this critical moment the United States took a decision that it would compete, not retreat." It took four years for NAFTA to be negotiated and passed by Congress, and it has remained controversial, especially because of its mechanisms for regulating such matters as labor and environmental standards. Still, the agreement has produced significant increases in America's trade and commerce with Mexico and Canada. Later agreements have also occasioned some tough fights, sometimes on issues such as human rights abuses, which tend to be proxies for other, more consequential labor-market issues. And these fights continue today on current efforts with Europe and Asia.

Because national strategies, like free trade agreements, end up picking winners and losers in the domestic economy, they usually need overarching public support. They aren't likely to be developed in the cloistered hallways of academe, expressed in complex formulas understandable only by educated elites, or slipped into legislation unnoticed in the early-morning hours of a holiday weekend. Instead, if they're to be successful, they emerge with powerful simplicity from multiple sources, and often with bumper-sticker clarity.


  • “While Gen. Clark is perhaps best known for his 2004 presidential campaign on the Democratic ticket, his ideal national strategy has significant bipartisan appeal...This book is about much more than foreign or public policy. Gen. Clark tells fascinating tales about meetings with prominent officials from all over the world that offer insight into the strategic goals of other countries...The publishers of "Next War" could not have timed its release any better...You may not agree with Gen. Clark's strategies, but at least he is trying to elevate the national conversation with his fantastic new book.” Seeking Alpha

    “The author is an upbeat advocate and writer, bringing his can-do military attitude to a set of problems away from the battlefield. Clark is forceful and confident in tone, but he also wisely acknowledges that he has relied on many advisers.... A clearly written prescription to help Americans alleviate their nation's malaise.” Kirkus Reviews

    “An exuberant vision for American global leadership that would deemphasize, without diminishing, American military preeminence in favor of an economic-muscle approach that leverages American energy resources.” Booklist

    “A catalyst for serious debate.” Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Sep 16, 2014
Page Count
272 pages

Wesley K. Clark

About the Author

General (Ret.) Wesley K. Clark is a distinguished fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center and a retired four-star general in the US Army. He served as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, where he led NATO forces to victory in Operation Allied Force, the war in Kosovo. He is chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic consulting firm, and is the author of Winning Modern Wars, Waging Modern War, and A Time to Lead. He serves as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative’s Energy & Climate Change Advisory Board, and is the recipient of many awards, including the Purple Heart and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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