Plans, Goals, Strategy, Tactics

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”. 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.

24 thoughts on “Plans, Goals, Strategy, Tactics

  1. The document is more like a term paper, working thesis of the graduate student, or maybe the result of research done by a graduate research assit. The document is not a plan for victory.
    Every read JFK’s speech re the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now there’s a plan. The plan so tight the russians had no other choice but to get their missiles and go home.

  2. The commanders on the ground have been improvising since day one march 17 2003, 2 years 9 months and 2 weeks ago. Tehran is full of hope but it ain’t ‘democracy’ but the chance of controlling events in a former rival. Damascus is just holding on.
    What requires 160,000 troops in Iraq? weel if you want to paint schools give out supplies and shoes to kids, then put them in a box and mail them to Iraq. You don’t send an army to do a social workers job.

  3. Bush has no strategy.He’s holding on in perhaps the belief that an insurgency has a shelf life.The funny thing is, is that Bush hasn’t indentified the nature, the determination, or the size of his enemies in Iraq, nor has he been able understand the relationship between his adventure in Iraq and a legitimate war on terror.

    I believe that Bush got caught up in a mix of religious thinking and the high testosterone intoxications of power. With Satan in the form of light whispering in his ear,” It’s a slam dunk”, to cover the military aspect of his concerns and whispering in his other ear.” they’ll shower us in flowers”, to cover his political apprehensions. On top of that you have the lord God of creation personally giving Bush the annionting and the victory. The boy never stood a chance. He only saw his laurel wreath.

    Wouldn’t I be surprised if incompetence and bumbling turned out to be a tactic in a grand strategy for victory.

  4. Oh, I also think that Bush uses the term “mission” when addressing an audience of military props is because in the military you are trained to be subservient to the mission. There’s no sense in thinking if your superiors have already determined the right course of action to take. Father knows best.

  5. You’re making this more complicated than it is. A “strategy” is a plan with enough detail to give you some confidence. A “goalset” is a plan without enough detail to give you confidence.

    When Grant made his strategy, it consisted of statements like “Butler will advance up the James to cut the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond.” At the time, that probably sounded like a very feasible subgoal. Collectively, since all the subgoals sounded very feasible, and since they all sounded like they would collectively attain the overall goal, Grant’s plan rises to the level of a “strategy” – it was enough to give people confidence.

    “Tactics” are just details that are not needed to establish confidence. For example, if Bush were to say, “my first step is to bomb Fallujah into the stone age, ” I would be confident that he could achieve that. He wouldn’t have to tell me what types of bombs or planes he intends to use. I already have confidence in that step without the details. That means that those details fall to the level of “tactics.”

    Bush’s plan does not rise to the level of a strategy simply because it does not, in itself, inspire confidence. He lists a bunch of subgoals, but few of them are things that seem feasible. Most are things that we have failed at in the past. His plan depends on us achieving several of these things that we have already demonstrated an inability to achieve. That doesn’t mean these things cannot be achieved in the future. But the plan, as stated, does not contain enough detail to instill confidence. That makes it not a strategy.

    Of course, much of this is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re somebody who trusts Bush implicitly, then in your eyes, “I’m going to kill all the insurgents” is a strategy – because it consists of a (short) sequence of steps that are all individually attainable (in your mind).

  6. Here’s my understanding of strategy and tactics. You have a goal. Your strategy is your theory of the kinds of resources you’ll need to reach your goal (or the resources you’ll need to deny your enemy), the obstacles preventing you getting those resources, and a roadmap for removing those obstacles. Tactics are the means used to travel that road–the actual actions that will advance your strategy.

    Tactics should be closed–i.e., well-defined, with measurable results. But strategies should be open. As you complete tactics, you may find that you need fewer (or more) of some resources to reach your goal than you initially figured, so you re-strategize, tweak your map, then prepare tactics for the revised strategy.

    So, say you’re bin Laden. You want the US out of Saudi Arabia. But the US has far more resources than you do–money, men, supplies, technology, the ability to operate in the open, a reservoir of public support, etc. So your strategy would be some kind of plan to reduce the US advantage in those areas and simultaneously enlarge your own. Here, terrorism would be a tactic, not a strategy. The end you desire with terrorism is not to make your enemy afraid (which I hear moron pundits say all the fucking time). The thing terrorism is designed to do is to get your enemy to over-react. Only then do you have a chance of getting your enemy to squander some of his advantages while you simultaneously, because your enemy has over-reacted, make gains–recruitment, sympathy, favorable press, money, etc.

    Terrorism is an effective tactic, at times. It’s not reliable–say just about anybody else had been president on 9/11; the tactic may have backfired and instead pulled resources from you toward your enemy. But clearly, with Bush, it worked. But it’s a terrible strategy. How could your goal for getting the US out of Saudi Arabia be achieved if your entire plan was to commit terror?

  7. Ah, nothing puts Bush’s Mess o’ Potamia into perspective like a Lincoln-Civil War analogy. The other night I started reading Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and ended up crying myself to sleep, wishing that Professor Frink or somebody would hurry up and invent a time machine so I could escape to the time of the first Republican president. (Although I suppose those 1860s undergarments would send me screaming back to the present PDQ.)

    Wouldn’t you love to know what Abe would have to say about the mumblings and bumblings of The Chimp? Anybody got a ouija board handy?

  8. ” They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your
    methods were unsound.”

    ” Are my methods unsound?”

    ” I don’t see any method at all, sir.”

  9. Forget the ante-bellum plumbing and lengerie, Girls…

    Laudinum was the universal Nostrum employed against PMS…

    ‘Til the Blockage got some traction…

    That’s also about the time when the number of requestts for home leave from the Confederate armies tanked…

    Corn whiskey made a poor sunstitute for Opium-laced Wine…

  10. Besides the obvious “too little, too late” on the Victory Plan…I’m curious about what some of the Dems are now saying.

    Kerry was on Today this morning claiming that generals are either not getting heard by Bush or they’re being ignored. And they’re afraid of speaking up lest they get Shinseki’d.

    Murtha is popping up again too…and the scuttle I hear is that he has a pretty direct line to the Pentagon. Is it possible that Murtha is giving voice to what career military types are saying behind closed doors?

  11. Is it possible that Murtha is giving voice to what career military types are saying behind closed doors?

    That would be my guess.I don’t know what to make of it,but Murtha painted a pretty bleak picture of the condition of our military in Iraq. I’m amased by the amount to the rotations with some of the troops and that has to be taking a toll on the overall effort. Burnout seems feasable.

  12. It seems to me that the righties’ arguments on strategy versus tactics is just another version of “It depends on what the definition of is is”.

  13. the stragety is to bring ursery to the muslim world.
    The tactics are to bomb the crap out of them.
    Then freedom will reign and there will be ponies, sweets, and flowers for all God’s finest children.

  14. Is it possible that Murtha is giving voice to what career military types are saying behind closed doors?

    I think that may be the case.

  15. I think his strategy is to take everyone’s mind of the continuing fiasco called Katrina

  16. Your leaving operations, the level between tactics and strategy, out of spectrum here.

    To elaborate, if tactics are about winning battles (and the SOPs used by small units) and strategy is about winning wars (or coordinating military means and political objectives) than operations are about winning campaigns (the care and usa of large units). To put it another way, operational art is about sequencing battles so as produce overall victory as opposed to merely winning a series of battles that lead to no useful strategic end.

  17. Good discussion. I’d like to follow maha’s initial point “Bush is better at goals than at plans” a little further though, since this seems to me to exemplify so much of what is wrong with this administration, current Republican philosophies, and America. To me, it is all part and parcel of what I refer to as the “MBA-ifcation” of America.

    What does this most recent speech (or any of his communications, for that matter), sound like so much as one of those stupid corporate “Mission Statements” (there’s that “M” word again) that go on and on, blah, blah, blah about how they’re going to produce the world’s finest products, treat their employees like senscient and valued human beings, be kind to the environment, etc. Once the PR department or hired gun produces it, it’s promptly filed away, to only be resurrected for higher-falutin’ sounding revisions, or emergencies when the company has gotten caught doing a no-no, so that they can say “See, we really are good guys, it was just a few rogue employees that did the bad thing.” (Sound familiar?)

    In short, Repubs are in love with the power of the executive. They all see themselves as Captain Picard in the command chair of the Enterprise saying “Make it so” and everything happens by magic. No muss, no fuss, no backchat, and anyone who dares disagree is summarily fired. That’s the way they work it in the corporate world. Employees have no rights, and the CEO deserves his gazillion dollar a year salary and perks because he is somehow “worth it” for his “strategic vision”. Never mind that if you managed to disappear all 500 of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 99% of the companies would never notice the difference.

    It’s also why they love the military. The generals say it, the grunts gotta figure out how to get it done or die trying. But here’s the thing. Those generals had to work their way up the ladder– they were all once leiutenants learning to do their jobs. Bush and his Republican cronies were never leiutenants– they got to skip right up to the top rungs of the ladder with no knowledge base, and no skill set. They are virtual reality leaders only, and have no clue or ability to be anything but.

  18. operational art is about sequencing battles so as produce overall victory as opposed to merely winning a series of battles that lead to no useful strategic end.

    Thanks; that’s a useful distinction. I kind of knew that but hadn’t expressed it well.

  19. 10 Marines killed today in Iraq. Looks like we’ll be sneaking more bodies back into America under the cover of darkness.Lest Americans can see the price of Bush’s Iraqi adventure..I’m sure that Georgie is just a weepin’ and a mournin’ for those poor kids who got caught up in his lies and deceits. What a shame!

  20. Pingback: The Mahablog » The Mission Creep

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