Sen. John McCain during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Sen. John McCain, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants the fiscal 2016 defense budget to be strategy-driven rather than budget-driven.

Defense Department officials claim the $585.3 billion being sought in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 request is strategy-driven.

But what’s President Obama’s strategy? And if you are like McCain and don’t like it, what should America’s strategy be?

McCain (R-Ariz.) has criticized Obama for being “reactive,” with no discernible overall strategy.

On Jan. 21, McCain said, “We must have a strategy based on a clear-eyed assessment of the threats we face and a budget that provides the resources necessary to confront them.”

McCain, seeking strategy advice, held three Armed Services panel hearings in January titled “Global Challenges and U.S. National Security Strategy.” He heard from two former national security advisers (Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski), three retired senior military officers (Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, Adm. William J. Fallon, Army Gen. John M. Keane) and three former secretaries of state (Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz and Madeleine Albright).

Testimony from all three sessions shows how difficult strategy-making is. There are many varied views.

In fact, the testimony provides both support and criticism for Obama’s policies, making it no surprise that nobody offered an overall strategy.

All recognized that today’s threats — although far less dangerous than the Cold War’s potential nuclear exchanges — are more complex.

Kissinger summed it up best, saying, “The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”

Any new strategy, he said, must shift from an emphasis on economic and military power “to include also psychological contests and asymmetric wars.”

That’s because the existing order of nation states is being challenged, as well as the relationship between regions. At the same time, instant communications demand immediate interaction.

In contrast to McCain, Kissinger recognizes that U.S. foreign policy has always been reactive.

“We have been secure behind two great oceans,” he said. “So, for Americans, security presented itself as a series of individual issues for which there could be a pragmatic solution, after which there was no need for further engagement until the next crisis came along.”

Americans traditionally have focused on short-term foreign policy solutions rather than pursuing long-term strategies.

Kissinger, however, suggested there are necessary questions to be answered in a national dialogue before strategies can be developed. For example, “What are our objectives? What are the best means to achieve these objectives? How can we sustain them over a period of time?”

Fallon came closest to my view.

He observed that “there’s no way you’re going to be able to come up . . . with comprehensive, long-term, thoughtful, effective policies once the gun goes off.”

Once a president is inaugurated, “you’re off and running, and the reality is, something happens all the time, every single day.”

“So all these pressures make it virtually impossible to think strategically . . . once you get in the game.”

His advice: Use all the resources available and recognize that you “cannot solve everything, but pick a few big things, and decide that is what you will focus on and go for it.”

Albright offered an idea that almost all agreed with — that the United States is “the world’s indispensable nation,” but she added that “nothing about the word ‘indispensable’ requires us to act alone.

“Alliances and partnerships matter, enhancing our power and the legitimacy of our actions,” she said.

While McCain was on Capitol Hill seeking a strategy, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work was at a think tank describing strategy in a more practical way.

“We don’t face a single monolithic or implacable adversary like we did in the Cold War,” Work said at the Center for a New American Security. “We face multiple potential competitors, from small regional states like North Korea and Iran, to large advanced states like Russia and China, to non-state adversaries and actors [like the Islamic State] with advanced capabilities. Each of these are probably going to require a different approach.” and a different strategy.”

As a result, he said, “we’re not going to be able to pick out one specific strategy that will be good for all potential adversaries and all potential capabilities. It has to be much more innovative and agile.”

The response, Work said, requires investment in
nuclear weapons, space-
control capabilities, sensors, communications, cybertechnology, munitions and missile defense. He also referred to technology investments in unmanned undersea vehicles, high-speed strike weapons and aeronautics.

This is why there is an increase in the defense budget, from high-tech to low-tech and everything in between.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.