In August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met off the coast of Newfoundland to outline a shared vision for the post-World War II era. The British prime minister was so thrilled to see the American president that, in the words of one official, “You’d have thought he was being carried up into the heavens to meet God.” The two countries issued the Atlantic Charter, which sought “a better future for the world” through the principles of self-determination, collective security, and free trade. The United States hadn’t even entered the war yet, but it was already focused on winning the peace. The endgame was not just the defeat of the Axis powers, but also the creation of a stable global order, in which World War II would be the last world war.
Today, the United States is contemplating a major expansion of its military campaign against ISIS. Driven partly by faith that the end times are imminent, ISIS has stepped up expeditionary attacks outside its caliphate, including the bombing of a Russian jet over Egypt, a suicide attack in Lebanon, and coordinated assaults in Paris.
In the struggle against ISIS, however, far from preparing for the postwar world, U.S. politicians haven’t shown much interest in long-term thinking. Instead, the debate is fixated on immediate tactical questions, or which hill to capture. Who is planning for a better peace?
The Obama administration has neglected the endgame. In theory, the U.S. plan is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS through air strikes and aid to local troops on the ground. But the White House hasn’t mapped out what the path to strategic success might look like, or even the desired end state. Instead, to a large degree, President Obama has been improvising. Last spring, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded: “We’re basically sort of playing this day to day.” After the Paris attacks, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a veiled critique of the president: “It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate.”
Officials in the White House seem to fear that too much long-range planning could…