Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Thursday, December 1st, 2005.


Plans, Goals, Strategy, Tactics

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

I’ve said before that George Bush is better at goals than he is with plans. In BushWorld, leaders set goals, and the job of figuring out how to achieve those goals falls to the help. Here’s an example from the Maha Archives, about the transfer of “sovereignty” in 2004 —

I don’t know exactly what prompted Bush to set the June 30 deadline for handover of “power.” But all along I had an impression that Bush had done little else but agree to a date. It was up to little people somewhere to make it happen, somehow.

Last April during the famous no-mistakes press conference Bush provided his in-depth plan for the transfer of power:

    QUESTION: Mr. President, who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?

    BUSH: We’ll find that out soon.

He was expecting the Good Sovereignty Fairy.

Indeed, that’s been Problem One with Iraq all along. Bush charged in with no plan beyond taking Baghdad and capturing Saddam. In place of planning was a hazy notion that the removal of Saddam magically would result in a flowering of democracy.

Today, Ezra Klein writes of the “National Strategy for Victory” (PDF) document, “It’s not a strategy, it’s a goalset.” Items like “Build Iraqi Security Forces” are presented as steps, not objectives. “The only question is,” writes Ezra, “considering we’ve shown no facility at doing any of those things, what’s to say we do them now. Was all we were missing really a document counseling us to defeat the evildoers?”

But then our good buddy Joe Henke wrote on the rightie Q and O blog that we lefties are confusing strategy with tactics. In particular, Mr. Henke says, Matt Cooper consistently uses the word strategy when he means tactics in this post.

Based on my quick first read of the Bush “Victory Strategy” for Iraq, I don’t really see the groundwork for the big 2006 troop withdrawal that lots of commentators have been expecting. Instead, the “strategy” seems to consist of exactly what the strategy thus far has been — denial and spin aimed at shoring up domestic political support for a mission whose goals are ill-defined and unrealistic. At the moment, troop levels in Iraq are very high as a result of a pre-election surge, so we may well see tens of thousands of soldiers leave the country next year but still have over 100,000 troops deployed.

Meanwhile, it’s plain that there’s no actual strategy here. The document calls for “building democratic institutions” and eventually “providing an inspiring example to reformers in the region.” But the administration has no idea how to do that stuff. The government is corrupt, the security services, when not totally ineffective, are highly politicized and rather brutal, and there’s simply no consensus in Iraq about the basic legitimacy of the state.

There is too strategy, Mr. Henke says.

There’s a difference between strategy and tactics. Clausewitz said strategy was “the employment of battles to gain the end of war”. In this case, a Strategy for Iraq is the employment of the various elements at our disposal (economic, military, political, etc) to achieve the policy goals established by the administration. Strategy is simply “a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal.”

Tactics, on the other hand, is the “how to do that stuff” that Yglesias is looking for. Tactics “deals with securing objectives set by strategy”. Answers.com spells it out more clearly

    Tactics and strategy are often confused.

    * Tactics are the actual means used to gain a goal.

    * Strategy is the overall plan.

The administration has laid out the strategy for Iraq. The tactics will largely be decided by the commanders on the ground. And, as a famous military strategist once pointed out, “just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”

Most of what I know about strategy and tactics I got from reading history books. Just for fun I looked up “strategy” in the index of Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (Oxford University Press, 1988), which took me to “Grant’s strategic plan for 1864” on pages 721-722. Grant’s strategy was that the Army of the Potomac under George Meade would engage Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, while William Tecumseh Sherman would engage Joe Johnston’s army in Georgia and thereabouts. Of three remaining Union armies on the periphery of the main theaters,

Grant directed Banks to plan a campaign to capture Mobile, after which he was to push northward and prevent rebel forces in Alabama from reinforcing Johnston. At the same time Butler was to advance up the James to cut the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond and threaten the Confederate capital from the south, while Sigel moved up the Valley to pin down its defenders and cut Lee’s communications to that region.

Banks, Butler, and Sigel all blew their assignments, but that’s what a strategy looks like.

Now, on page 473 is a description of tactics.

The tactical legacy of eighteenth-century and Napoleonic warfare had emphasized close-order formations of soldiers trained to maneuver in concert and fire by volleys … Assault troops advanced with cadenced step, firing volleys on command and then double-timing the last few yards to pierce the enemy line with a bayonet charge.

McPherson’s point is that these sorts of tactics didn’t work well in the Civil War. But here I just want to illustrate in a concrete manner what the difference is. They are both plans, but strategy is all about moving your armies around to win a war, whereas tactics involve moving soldiers and guns and whatnot to win battles.

In regard to Iraq, I don’t feel a need to know tactics. However, is there a strategy? If we apply our example of a strategy — Butler will advance up the James to cut the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond and threaten the Confederate capital from the south — Bush’s “Victory” document seems pretty vague in comparison. I appreciate the fact that military strategy has to be kept secret, of course. But there are non-military strategies; for example, the Marshall Plan was an economic strategy. And the section in the document titled “Our Strategy for Victory Is Clear” (start on page 6) doesn’t seem to contain any strategy. For example, on page 7 we find “Prevailing in Iraq will help us win the war on terror,” followed by some quotes from terrorist leaders offered as proof.

That’s comparable to Ulysses Grant saying, “defeating Confederate armies will bring about the surrender of the Confederacy.” But our Iraq example is worse, actually, because the connection between the military whatever-it-is in Iraq to the overall extremist Islamic terrorist movement is a whole lot less solid than the connection between Confederate armies and the Confederate government. What is the place of the Iraq War in the context of global terrorist movements? And if we did defeat all terrorists in Iraq, would that in fact make any dent in terrorism elsewhere? How?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for honest answers to those questions from the White House.

There is also grand strategy, which is another level up from plain strategy. Grand strategy involves the goals you want to accomplish with a war, or the reason you had for going to war in the first place this paper (PDF) goes into more detail about grand strategy. The author provides this definition:

Grand strategy is an overarching concept that guides how nations employ all of the instruments of national power to shape world events and achieve specific national security objectives. Grand strategy provides the linkage between national goals and actions by establishing a deliberately ambiguous vision of the world as we would like it to be (ends) and the methods (ways) and resources (means) we will employ in pursuit of that vision. Effective grand strategies provide a unifying purpose and direction to national leaders, public policy makers, allies and influential citizens in the furtherance of mutual interests.

So if we start from the top on Iraq, what is our grand strategy? Do we have one? (That’s the subject of the “grand strategy” paper, actually. I haven’t read it all the way through, but it looks promising. I may write a post on it later.)

In his speech yesterday (White House web site title: “President Outlines Strategy for Victory in Iraq“), we find:

In the long run, the best way to ensure the security of our own citizens is to spread the hope of freedom across the broader Middle East. We’ve seen freedom conquer evil and secure the peace before. In World War II, free nations came together to fight the ideology of fascism, and freedom prevailed — and today Germany and Japan are democracies and they are allies in securing the peace. In the Cold War, freedom defeated the ideology of communism and led to a democratic movement that freed the nations of Eastern and Central Europe from Soviet domination — and today these nations are allies in the war on terror.

Today in the Middle East freedom is once again contending with an ideology that seeks to sow anger and hatred and despair. And like fascism and communism before, the hateful ideologies that use terror will be defeated by the unstoppable power of freedom, and as democracy spreads in the Middle East, these countries will become allies in the cause of peace. (Applause.)

Advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in the Middle East begins with ensuring the success of a free Iraq. Freedom’s victory in that country will inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran, and spread hope across a troubled region, and lift a terrible threat from the lives of our citizens. By strengthening Iraqi democracy, we will gain a partner in the cause of peace and moderation in the Muslim world, and an ally in the worldwide struggle against — against the terrorists. Advancing the ideal of democracy and self-government is the mission that created our nation — and now it is the calling of a new generation of Americans. We will meet the challenge of our time. We will answer history’s call with confidence — because we know that freedom is the destiny of every man, woman and child on this earth. (Applause.)

That is Bush’s description of his grand strategy. So, yes, there is one. Two grand questions follow: Is this a valid grand strategy? And, what strategy are we following to achieve our grand strategy?

I’ll leave the first question for another time. As for the second, the “Victory” document has some elements of a strategy — for example, “Promoting an independent, unbiased, and ethical court system through technical assistance and training of prosecutors, attorneys, and judges.” But what to me the most pressing strategic question — how are we going to bring our military role in the Iraq conflict to a resolution — is not addressed directly at all.

Today Thomas Oliphant, in the Boston Globe, noted that “The question Bush was unable to confront, much less answer yesterday, is what requires the presence of 160,000 US troops in Iraq.” And Fred Kaplan at Slate points out that Bush is still hazy about what the mission actually is.

In the speech, Bush says (as he has said many times before), “We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission.” But what is the mission? At one point he says, “When our mission of training the Iraqi security forces is complete, our troops will return home to a proud nation.” However, a bit later, he says the mission will be complete “when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy,” and he adds, “I will settle for nothing less than complete victory.”

So, which is it: Our job is done when the Iraqis can fight the bad guys on their own—or when the bad guys are defeated? Those are two very different standards, involving very different benchmarks of progress.

The Victory document reads less like a strategy than it does a post hoc argument for why we’re fighting in Iraq. It’s the sort of thing one writes to make excuses for a deed already done. Imagine asking little Jimmy to write an essay titled “Why I Didn’t Do My Homework.” Jimmy can either tell the truth — I just didn’t want to — or he can come up with excuses, many of which didn’t occur to him until he sat down to write the essay — I didn’t feel good; I had to take care of my sister; it was on my computer and the hard drive crashed. Why are we fighting in Iraq? “Prevailing in Iraq will help us win the war on terror,” the “strategy” document says. Yeah, and the dog ate my homework.

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