Confusion about strategy

When President Obama recently said "We don’t have a strategy yet," political reporters became obligated to define "strategy," which (predictably) they refused to do (in any story I've seen).

Leaving "strategy" to the imagination of the political class, it could mean "objectives," "tactics," "general intentions," political or military posture, or "frame of reference."

To the military history reader, strategy refers to an outcome based on overall goals, with intermediate objectives, timetables, possibly means, and pre-selected milestone events (as needed). Such a reader might imagine WWII in the west: North Africa landings, Sicily, Italy, France; likewise the island hopping in the Pacific culminating in a home islands invasion.

We cannot, however, reasonably expect any politician anywhere to ever adopt anything like what we would call strategy. This makes the idea that Obama was "speaking our language" absurd. Whatever the "gaffe" was in making his statement, we can assume it was not military or strategic because politicians do no strategy, politicians do contingency.

I have said it before:

- Any strategy is death to political control of the military. It puts the politician at the mercy of events, ends and means having been decided and posted to the court of public opinion.

- There is a long list of inhibitors that guarantee strategy cannot be formulated or adopted.

- "He means to win the war by strategy" - biggest laugh line of the Civil War.

What about Roosevelt's war strategy, unfolding as it did? North Africa, specifically Operation Torch, was the military's desperate, improvised reaction to Roosevelt's non-negotiable demand that the European Axis must be engaged by American troops in 1942. It was pick a front and go. After Torch, Sicily was clearly opportunistic and with the fall of Sicily, the second opportunity of Italy promised a political effect against Mussolini: this was low hanging fruit. The decision to invade of France was a political football that remained in play into early 1944. After accepting the conditional surrender of Vichy in Africa and Badoglio in Italy, unconditional surrender suddenly became unconditional - a policy that would govern strategy or the absence of strategy to war's end. Note to political pundits: policy is not strategy.

In the Pacific, the same pattern emerges. The Navy's war was haphazard and self-directed. The Army's war, under MacArthur, followed the general's strategy for returning to the Philippines (one new book showing how MacArthur obtained incremental buy-in from Roosevelt in the absence of a presidential strategy).

And of Korea, Vietnam, the post war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the less said the better.

Since WWII, the political control of the military has so deeply affected the military's culture, our generals and admirals are at a complete loss as to what strategy is. They cannot seem to transcend the political bubble. Here are the comments of the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs on "strategy" (emphasis added):
Yeah, I will say up front that normally we talk about ends, ways and means mostly during the budget season, when the means become the prominent feature in strategic discussions.

The other way we talk about strategy throughout the year is choices and consequences. You know, we are blessed as a nation to have, you know – we have multiple options in how to deal with issues, in ways that some other countries – most other countries around the world have far, far fewer options.


And then the other interesting thing about strategy, to me, is whether it’s best to define an end state and then deliberately plot a series of actions to achieve that end state. That’s the traditional thinking, by the way. You identify the end state and then you back plan from that and you chart a course with milestones to decide whether you’ve got it right or not; or whether the world in which we live today actually is one where, kind of like the Heisenberg principle in physics, where you should touch it and see what happens.
To understand how confused the general can be about strategy, consider these pop culture assertions:

- Strategy is operational excellence
- Strategy is is perspective, position, plan, and pattern
- "Strategy is that which top management does that is of great importance to the organization"

And yet, Google's top-of-search gives all the presidents, policymen, and policy executors what they need: strategy is "a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim." This definition is surprisingly close to what military readers think of as strategy, not that we should raise our hopes that others will agree with us. Because strategy is clear and actionable and measurable and it succeeds or fails, this must be poison to politicians. President Obama will adopt no strategy. Neither did Lincoln or Davis.