What is Strategy, and is It Even Possible?

As passionate observers of America’s and Israel’s struggle against Islamic terrorism, we often take pause to reflect on those countries’ strategies in their wars on terror. We discuss and critique past strategies, and debate the various proposals for future strategies for a successful plan to make the world more secure.

Many of the participants in this debate would be well served to move the discussion back to an understanding of basic concepts in security before given their prognoses for the most elusive answer, the proper course of action against terror.  One cannot propose a strategy without understanding what  ‘strategy’ is,  and once that has been established, whether it is truly attainable (or whether ‘strategy’ really does exist).

The finest evaluation of the fundamental questions of strategy that I have come across is Richard K. Betts’ in International Security, “Is Strategy an Illusion” (Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2000), pp. 5-50). Dr. Betts is the Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The article, no less than its author, is very highly regarded in the field of security studies, and is still taught today to students of the discipline, the future policy-makers of the nation.

 So, to our first, crucial question- What is strategy?

Strategy is simply how the means serve the ends. In our discussion, the means are the military measures, the actual tactics and operations, the ends are the political goals,  the establishment of a democratic government or the dispersal of a terrorist network, and strategy is how the military fighting  makes possible the political aims. In the absence of strategy, war becomes meaningless act, the shedding of blood with no rational reason. In Betts’ words,

Strategy is the essential ingredient for making war either politically effective or morally tenable. It is the link between military means and political ends, the scheme for how to make one produce the other.

Having established what strategy is, Betts then deals with the question of whether strategy, laying down a clear predictive formula for achieving political goals through military means, is indeed possible. He groups the arguments against the possibility of strategy thus:

there are no agreed criteria for which are good or bad; there is little demonstrable relationship between strategies and outcomes in war; good strategies can seldom be formulated because of policymakers’ biases; if good strategies are formulated, they cannot be executed because of organizations’ limitations.

Betts warns that strategy is often mistaken for the use of raw power, attrition against the enemy. While that may in particular cases be the best strategy, good strategy multiplies the force available, finding the most cost-effective ways to defeat an enemy.

Betts aptly points out that policy-makers and soldiers misunderstand what strategy is for different reasons. Policy-makers often think that strategy is what they want the final outcome to be, and assume that force will automatically make that possible, and soldiers tend to think that strategy is the actual fighting, without regard for the reason behind the campaign.

Betts lays out ten arguments against the possibility of strategy, then responds to each one. I will share some of the most intriguing critiques in this post.
Critique 1: Luck versus Genius
Strategy is an illusion because it is impractical to judge in advance which risk is reasonable or which strategy is less justifiable than another. The illusion persists be-cause observers confuse what they know about results of past strategic choices with what they can expect strategists to know before the choices are tested. Almost any strategy can be rationalized and no rationale falsified at the time that a strategy must be chosen.

Too often we judge past decisions based on what we know after the fact, not what strategists knew at the time. Recreating those conditions is extremely difficult. Since strategy is contingent on risks and unknown variables, it is essentially a gamble.

And, if we do go back to the conditions in which the judgment was made, by what criteria should we judge the decision? By the objective? Some objectives “cannot fail to be achieved” -

For example, U.S. spokesmen declared that the objective of Operation Desert Fox-the four-day bombing of Iraq in 1998-was to “degrade” Saddam Hussein’s capabilities. Any combat action would do that. Strategy cannot be faulted, however, just because the objective it serves is dubious to the observer, if it makes sense in terms of a different value of concern to the
one making the decision. If the decisionmaker puts priority on a moral value that conflicts with material welfare (e.g., honor), even self-destructive behavior can be strategic.

Betts’ point about honor as an objective is an important one as we considered the strategy of Islamic terroriss, heavily concerned with honor.

Moreover, what amount of risk do we consider reasonable? Does the outcome matter, even if the winner took extraordinary risk but was lucky?

Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Douglas MacArthur all gambled more than once, and all won some and lost some. Hitler rolled the dice several times against the advice of prudent generals, and won stunning victories from the 1930s until his two big mistakes in 1941: attacking the Soviet Union and declaring war on the United States. Churchill’s inspiration contributed to the disaster of Gallipoli in 1915 but also to Britain’s ªnest hour in 1940. In 1950 MacArthur overrode the fears of U.S. military leaders that a landing at Inchon would be a fiasco and he scored a stunning success, then took a similar gamble
in splitting his force on the march to the Yalu and caused a calamity. In hindsight most judge Hitler to be strategically foolish, Churchill brilliant, and Mac-Arthur either one, depending on the observer’s political sympathies. Do the
strategies chosen warrant such differing verdicts? Or are the prevalent judgments really not about these leaders’ strategic sense, but about the higher values for which they stood? 

At the time, Churchill counted on eventualities that were unlikely to occur as he planned- American involvement and victory through air campaigns. But, Churchill was vindicated by events. Perhaps he is judged so favorably because of the values he stood by, not the likelihood of his being correct. If we say his risk was worth it, and almost all would, then what is the parameter for evaluating reasonable risk?

Betts’ response to this criticism includes the point that there should be several factors included in evaluating strategy- chances of success, cost of failure, options, the value of the objective, the cost of not fighting. The more vital the objective, the more reasonable it is to take higher risks. The logical extension of this, however, is that since we must judge according to what was known at the time, we might have to praise some failures (Gallipoli) and scorn some victories (assault on Inchon). Judging subjective moral objectives is extremely difficult as well.

Betts then deals with criticisms based on psychoanalysis- leaders are not acting rationally, and therefore are not really creating strategy, but are rather influenced by pressures on their subconscious. One writer even calls war ‘filicide’, or the inverse of the Oedipus complex- fathers killing sons by sending them off to war. These criticisms are dismissed by Betts are misuse of psychoanalysis, a field which is itself not well-received in the psychology community.

Critique 5 is a compelling one, and is related to issues discussed on this site, especially cognitive egocentrism.

critique 5: culture versus coercion
Coercive strategies aimed at an adversary’s will depend on communication. Cultural blinders prevent the common frames of reference necessary to ensure that the receiver hears the message that the signaler intends to send. 

Betts use the example of the Chinese and Americans during Vietnam. American policy-makers saw their reputation at stake. But there is no reason to believe that the Chinese viewed American actions in the way Americans assumed they would.

This is relevant for our own attempts to send signals to the Arab world while assuming that they will take from our actions the same messages that we would.

Betts does not argue with this critique, but does not consider it a condemnation of all strategy. Signalling across cultures through war may be next to impossible (though signals like “surrender or die” are quite communicable), but not all strategy depends on that ability. The critique “represents an impediment to efficiency, not a denial of efficacy”.

Betts then includes critiques based on organizational processes that impede strategy.

Organizational processes deflect attention from policymakers’ priorities to implementing organizations’ habits of operation and institutional interests. Means may be applied effectively toward goals, but to instrumental goals of the operators rather than the higher ends meant to govern strategy

In other words, goal displacement occurs. The goals of the actual soldiers and units are worked toward, not the original goals of the policy-makers.

Betts’ final criticisms are based on the question of whether democracy is suited to implement strategy. Since democracy is possible only through compromise and concensus, strategic clarity and explicitness is compromised. This compromise causes politicians to focus half-measures, which do not serve strategic objectives.

Betts responds by saying that many objectives can be valuable incrementally, such as territory, and others absolute, such as control of a government. Compromises of the ends are more likely to work than compromises of the means. Moreover, in WWII, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were constantly compromising, but they were unified by their desire to let the priority be the total surrender of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.

Betts then gives his own opinion on the likelihood of reasonable strategy. He says that is possible, but the difficulty in attaining it should make rare the decision to use military force.

This does not mean that force should necessarily be the last resort, as the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine of the 1980s maintained. Nor does it mean that passivity is the natural default option; whenever a situation is bad enough that
combat comes into consideration, there will be costs from inaction. (The Clinton administration erred disgracefully, for example, in refraining from intervention in Rwanda in 1994. Even if action could have saved only a bare tenth of the Tutsis who were murdered, that beneªt would have been 50,000- 80,000 lives, while the limited armament and organization of the Hutu killers
suggest that the cost in U.S. casualties would have been low.) But when deliberate killing is at issue-as it is in any decision to use military force of any consequence-it is important to have some well-founded reason to believe that the plan for killing will achieve results worth the lives. The one thing worse than doing nothing is doing the wrong thing. Action is preferable to inaction only
where policymakers think seriously beyond the objective and to the logic by which military means will take them there. Whatever the costs of refraining from war may be, they can seldom be greater than those from killing without strategy.

He also calls for a priority to be placed on material metrics, not ideas such as honor or credibility.

the objectives by which strategic logic is measured should be limited as far as possible to material interests.

Here I disagree strongly. Concepts like “deterrence” are not measurable materially, but can be crucially important. Materially, Israel was right to leave southern Lebanon and Gaza. But, they were seen as weak in their enemies’ eyes. This caused more violence against Israel. Some concepts have real consequences if ignored.

Betts admonitions on the limits of strategy are crucial, as is the need for a crisp definition of strategy and its relationship to tactics (fighting) and policy (the reason for fighting). Perhaps what Betts should encourage is a system for a continuous evaluation of strategy in light of the difficulties he mentions and the changing facts on the ground, in order to ensure that it effectively links the violent means with the political ends.

5 Responses to What is Strategy, and is It Even Possible?

  1. Kurt says:

    Interesting subject, but Betts creates a strawman when he thinks that soldiers view strategy as physical warfare that is separate from the dictates of policy. That assertion is patently false. Strategists within the military clearly understand ends, ways, and means linkages. Considerations of the ways of strategy through the instruments of national power often lead strategists to conclude that applied military power may be counter-productive towards the achievement of national interests. Thus you have flag officers reluctant to commit troops to combat without careful considerations of risks and the ability to achieve their objectives consonant with national policies and national interests.

  2. Lorenz Gude says:

    Personally I feel that civil society discussion of strategy is critical and amazingly absent from discussion of the Iraq war. The press shows no understanding of it which is why independent journalists Bill Roggio and Michael Yon have had such success reporting the Iraq war. In ther kingdom of the blind….
    That is why the press and the public and even many politicians were shocked by the success of the surge. But those of us reading the independents could see Hillary was putting her foot in her mouth when she claimed that to believe General Petraeus required a suspension of disbelief. It was even all there on the net at http://www.understandingwar.org/ The whole surge as it unfolded. The tactical level, the operational level and the strategic level by Kimberly Kagen military historian and the wife, if I recall correctly of, Robert Kagen who was instrumental in designing the surge strategy. The war has been so badly reported that the general understanding of what went wrong is so far from what actually went wrong that it is positively dangerous. Little better than conspiracy theory. I’d recommend Ricks’ Fiasco for an above average MSM account followed by Freith’s War and Decision.

    Reading here about the situation in Israel it seems even worse with both the immediacy of the problem and the deep ideological divisions. It would seem that Kassims landing at the bottom of the garden would shatter the ideological hypnosis. Evidently not enough.

  3. lazar says:

    Thanks. The link has been added to the post.

  4. [...] interested in this discussion would appreciate The Augean Stables’ post on Richard Bett’s article, “Is Strategy Even Possible”. « CAIR’s Demopathic Attack on Those Who [...]

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