What I am attempting with this post is to discuss the concept of strategy and contrast it a bit with strategic theory, but focusing more on how our concept of strategy is inseparable (or was) from certain concepts popularized by Clausewitz and others. I’ll attempt to connect this with certain changes that have taken place in US strategy formulation, or rather what passes today for strategy. Finally I’ll put this within a larger perspective of language and how it reflects a specific culture and changes in that culture.
How to start? When we think of the word “strategy” two related activities come to mind, the first planning – usually more long-term - followed by execution.
Webster’s defines strategy as “a plan of action encompassing the methods to be adopted from beginning to end of a task or endeavor, focussing on the general methods; contrasted with tactics, which is a plan for accomplishing subgoals of lesser extent than the primary goal. Thus, a strategy is a plan for winning a war, and a tactic is a plan for winning a battle.” Here we have the contrast of strategy and tactics which is important.
It is important to consider that words do in fact have meanings, contrary to the experiences of the last eight years in the US, that in times past they were considered to actually influence behaviour, that is influence how we acted in a complex world. The US has had, since the Truman Administration, a government body which is specifically tasked with analysing threats, considering policies and formulating strategy as defined above. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are part of this body – The National Security Council - and have no command authority precisely for this reason, they are to advise and provide the military’s role in strategy formulation, especially the connection between political purpose and military aim – more on this below - arguing when necessary that no connection exists, but do not actually command the troops in the field which is left to the civilian commander in chief.
Returning to our definition of strategy, there are still some important points missing, especially if we limit our definition of strategy to the implementation of state policy specifically (as in the NSC) and not just any plan of action.
Some time back on Thomas Huynh’s site a thread on defining strategy in one phrase came up. My definition was “focused adaptation over time in reference to a purpose through methodological theoretical construct” which sounds a bit intimidating and confused, but puts the elements I wished to in place, especially contingency and adaptation. There is also the implied distinction between praxis and theory since the adaptation is conducted “through a theoretical construct”. This need not be the case, one could simply do strategy as in praxis alone as the ancient Greeks saw it when they developed these various concepts: “strategia” being simply the conduct of the “strategos” or army commander. For Clausewitz as well, the military genius operates outside the realm of theory in dealing with the specific character of the conflict in question. Theory provides more a way of looking at the problem and a language for discussing/analyzing it. Here I’m referring to theory as aid to ongoing strategy, not theory as a means of historical analysis, or critique, which is something else altogether.
To tie together and expand on my definition and launch this post properly let’s proceed with a clearer and longer definition/description from Hew Strachan. This article is btw worth a careful read:
Strategy, as opposed to strategic theory, has two principal tasks. The first is to identify the nature of the war at hand. A misidentification is pregnant with consequences: it would be just as mistaken to fight a major war on the assumption that it is a smaller, more limited war, as the other way round. Moreover, what begins as one sort of war can turn into another. Recognising and understanding the nature of a war is a constant interrogative process, and one where strategic theory comes into play, not just something to be undertaken at the outset. The second task, once the nature of a war has been plumbed, is to manage the war and direct it. It is perfectly possible for the policymakers of one belligerent to decide to escalate a war, to make a local conflict into a global one. But neither common sense nor common humanity suggests that that is very sensible.
You will notice that this definition sees a very close interplay between strategy and strategic theory, which is by definition here Clausewitzian strategic theory, or more specifically Clausewitz’s general theory of war. The first question deals with the complex and dynamic nature of war, so we require a theory that deals with this nature, defines it in some intelligible and useful way. If we do not see war has having any nature or a whole range of unrelated natures that are subjective and related to cultural proclivities, then strategic theory as an aide to strategy becomes very problematic. In fact strategy as commonly defined, or as approached in Strachan’s quote would not exist.
Strategy in this view concerns a balance of political purpose, military aim and military/political means connected in harmony and blending into one another. Strategy in other words is simply the application of military/political means in support of a military aim which instrumentally provides the situation where the political purpose can be achieved, this is the basic concept behind the establishment of the NSC in the late 1940s. Seen another way strategy works in tactical ways to achieve the means (military victory) for political ends. The goal of tactics is military victory, whereas the goal of strategy is the return to peace with the political purpose fulfilled. Thus strategic theory provides the fundamental elements of strategy, the language of strategy so to speak, defines the various elements and describes how they are related.
Without this strategic theory, strategy becomes simply a wishlist of goals disassociated from the nature of war, or a question of capabilities (or tactics) operating against identified target sets (but in essentially a political vacuum). What this all assumes is the unlimited capability for humans to change not only their physical, but social environment.
Ron Suskind documented this attitude clearly in his article, "Without a Doubt":
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." [my emphasis]
Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you." When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, "Look, I'm not going to debate it with you."
Here we see that our traditional views of strategy and strategic theory were about limits, about the limits of humans to influence their own environment and how intentions – no matter how noble – could have totally unforeseen consequences. Strategy, going back to its Greek roots was firmly related to the basic tragic nature of human existence. It should also be noted here that for Thucydides, the break down of language, as in the meanings of words, reflected political turmoil (see Chapter 3 of link).
We see that the new concept of strategy is quite different and reflects profound political and cultural changes which have taken place even if they remain unacknowledged.
From what has been presented so far, I can develop a list of assumptions we have from the earlier concept of strategy and what it can tell us about US policy since 2001:
First, war has a complex and dynamic nature that is common to all wars. War is part of political intercourse, politics defined (following Max Weber) as “striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state”. Notice that we can replace “state” with “political community” or even “family” and this definition for politics would still apply. Weber’s definition for power is "the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests". Notice, there is a close similarity between “power” and “war” in that war is also defined as imposing our will on the enemy through organized violence. Using a metaphor to explain the subordination of war to politics, if we compare political relations to the weather, war would be violent weather, but not all weather.
Second, and this being a natural result of the first, changes in political conditions provide for changes in the nature of war. Each war is thus going to be unique, but still recognizable in terms of the complex nature that all wars share. Once again it is the assumed existence of this shared nature that makes not only strategy, but strategic theory possible. In addition, if one assumes that the nature of war has changed significantly, look to the changed political conditions between the hostile communities as to the basis for this change. Change can come from other sources – tactics, technology, psychology of specific leaders, new ideas – but will always take place within a specific political context. As Clausewitz tells us, it is within the context of the relationships between political communities that the embryo of war forms.
Third, war commences with the action of the defender. An aggressor achieving his goals without resistance is not war, nor is the aggressor slaughtering unarmed civilians, war starts when the defender resists. The attacker has the positive goal of conquering the defender, imposing his will, whereas the defender need only deny the attack his goal (a negative purpose) in order to win. An insurgency or guerrilla group need no political program beyond the defeat of the occupying force, that is the restoration of the status quo ante (however defined).
Fourth, strategy assumes a close interaction between tactics and strategy, the tactics used being supportive of the achievement of the military aim (military victory) which provides the means for the strategic aim (achievement of the political purpose and the return to peace). Success at the tactical level can lead to strategic success providing that the military aim supports the political purpose, but strategic confusion negates tactical success, while strategic clarity can compensate for tactical inadequacy.
Fifth, since not all politics is war, not all policy can be achieved through military means. Some policy goals are not achievable by military means in any way, rather are subverted and made impossible by the use of organized violence. This is the question for the political leadership to decide, does the political purpose lend itself to a military solution, or is this approach counter-productive? Obviously if the decision for war is based more on interest and opportunity than a threat assessment, this will influence planning. Also if the language used by the strategic culture in question requires a certain structure of discourse - the use of certain terms which may not fit the new political realities will only confuse the issue. The language itself can cease to have meaning.
Sixth, strategy assumes that there is an enemy or opposition which is human and interacts with our side over time, that is war as a conflict of opposing human wills. One cannot wage war against a “method” (Terrorism or Counter-Insurgency) or abstract concepts (Evil). Rather, such rhetoric obscures the actual political purpose and can confuse those tasked with implementing military strategy. Furthermore the character of the attacker's political purpose influences the level of resistance the enemy employs. A limited purpose would call on limited sacrifice, whereas a totally radical purpose, say the redefinition of the enemy's political identity would provoke extreme resistance and would demand of the attacker the dedication of significant moral and physical resources.
Seventh, each war is distinct. A war in one theater of operations must be handled as a separate war regardless of the fact that the same military is involved in both. Conflating regional conflicts into a global struggle confuses the issue and creates links which do not correspond to reality. Notice how this assumption is linked to five above.
And finally, there is a distinction between “war” and “peace”. This goes back to Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan saw the human situation as being essentially violent chaos which was only ended by people ceding power to a sovereign who held the monopoly of legitimate violence within the demarcated physical area (which we could refer to as the state). Absent this political entity we have (civil) war, or interstate war should the political entity be in armed conflict with other political entities. So war is not so much the absence of peace, but the absence of order which precedes the establishment of political authority. This would cover political entities which have never been states.