In last night’s debate, the issue of the distinction between tactics and strategy arose during an exchange. McCain attacked Obama’s description of the surge as a tactic.
OBAMA: They have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.
MCCAIN: I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.
Many people do not properly understand the difference between the two, and it is a crucial difference.
There are four levels of warfighting- Policy, Strategy, Operations, and Tactics. Strategy is the marriage between the political ends and the military means. Tactics, to give a boiled-down definition, is what is done when in combative contact with the enemy- the manuevers, attacks, timing, etc. To elucidate with an historical example – In WWII, the policy was the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. One of the strategies to achieve that policy was to knock out the German industrial capacity through aerial bombing runs. There were many operations, or organized collections of missions, meant to ensure that the bombing strategy was successful. The tactics involved in the operations include the decision to bomb at night, non-evasive flying to increase the accuracy of the bombing, and dogfighting manuevers by the fighter escorts.
Returning to the debate at hand, I believe Obama does know the difference, but in his statement during the debate, he was simply wrong. America’s policy is a stable, democratic Iraq, the Surge and Clear-Hold-Build are strategies to achieve the policy, Operation Sinbad was among the many operations in support of the strategies, and the tactics include the various ways to advance on a city, to clear a house, and to detect mines.
Joe Klein is also wrong, writing in Time,
As for McCain’s remark about Obama not knowing the difference between a tactic and a strategy-McCain was wrong. The counterinsurgency methods introduced by David Petraeus in Iraq were a tactical change, a new means to achieve Bush’s same strategic end of a stable, unified Iraq.
Absolutely not. Klein could use a refresher in basic security terminology.
Readers interested in this discussion would appreciate The Augean Stables’ post on Richard Bett’s article, “Is Strategy Even Possible”.