American strategy and politicization

Geoff Arnold pointed me towards a great article in The American Conservative, The Pentagon Fights Back. I’m going to plan to use it in future iterations of one of the classes I teach, ISSA 3302, Fundamentals of Intelligence Analysis, specifically during the section about the perils of politicization.

Giraldi makes a good point, comparing current American actions and apparent strategy to a thinking of that of 1938 in Munich. I don’t think it’s just Rwanda that hangs over the head of this Democratic administration (Bill Clinton regrets how he handled it), but other atrocities and acts of genocide, to include the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. But this is a philosophy, and approach – it is not a strategy, a plan for action. It is not something which can be explained to those who answer to you – the rest of the administration, the cabinet members – and from which they can go forth and take action to implement it. Strategy needs refinement. Strategy is hard to do.

We clearly lack that. I firmly believed that the administration in 2011 was worried that Iraq would slip into a sectarian war if US and other foreign troops were to leave at the end of 2011 with the expiration of the then-current SOFA. I thought this view was driving much of the effort to push the Iraqis for a new SOFA or some agreement to leave US and other forces on the ground in Iraq, for some extended period, even when it was clearly apparent to all that the Iraqis were not just uninterested but outright opposed it, as did their neighbors and patrons, the Iranians. Keeping US and other troops on the ground in Iraq might have helped create a security setting that would have allowed for more time to resolve the conditions leading to the current Sunni/Shia fighting in Iraq, or at least mitigated some of them. But with or without boots on the ground, a strategy would have had to include so much more – “boots on the ground” isn’t pixie dust.

Extending boots on the ground in Afghanistan – just that act – won’t resolve the situations there, and won’t advance American objectives or achieve American goals. Ditto for Syria. Military forces are a tool, applied to achieve objectives and implement effects – in conjunction with all other efforts by the administration.

The truly hardest part of any of these problem sets – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or just the Long War in general – is trying to envision what the desired end-state is, in total. Social, economics, political, religions, everything. Because having the ability to have that vision of a future state allows planners to move forward with strategy development that is rich enough to then give guidance to subordinates. It’s critical. To be able to say that, when all is said and done, we will have effected things in such a way that the world will be like X and Y and Z.

America doesn’t do that now. We can’t talk about the Middle East in that way. We can’t say that, given our current and planned actions and roles in the Middle East, we see the future of the Middle East being like (this) at (this time.) Which is what we are suppose to be able to do. The administration relies on the intelligence community (IC) to describe the world as it is today (as it does with things like this, the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community), but it can rely on the IC to describe the world of the future only after the administration can articulate what actions and effects it intends to undertake and achieve.

We have a strategy problem. We have had one for some time. We’ve been caught up playing whack-a-mole in this drone war, and been unable to decide where we are going, over time. And that’s a bad thing.


One thought on “American strategy and politicization

  1. My natural first reaction is to agree, of course.

    Then I think about what’s happening in business environments now, where “strategy” has become passé, and “agility” rules the day. Where the general concept is something like this: “Conditions are changing so rapidly, and there is so much complexity, that it’s unlikely we could accurately describe a future state that bears any significant likeness to how things will actually turn out. And windows of opportunity are so short, we’ll miss them if we take the time to do a traditional strategic analysis and planning cycle. So we’re better off just being really, really good at responding tactically to conditions the ground and steering things in a direction that seems to benefit us at the time.” Sure sounds a lot like our foreign policy, lately.

    I don’t think it’s a healthy or ultimately productive approach, but it’s rampant in business. None of the practitioners have been particularly good at explaining to me how they will create a favorable future state if they can’t even describe what future state they’re aiming for… but that just seems to make them angry and more convinced they don’t need heretics like me…

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