by Wm. J. Olson
Few things are more common in government circles these days than the lament that what we need—name the circumstance—is a strategy; we don’t have a strategy—name the circumstance—and until we do—name the circumstance—we are at a loss as to what to do, or how, or with what. On its surface, this is a truly puzzling contention. There is an industrial-strength enterprise in the government today, particularly in DoD and DHS, to produce strategy on ever conceivable necessity or non-necessity. There is a Noah’s Ark of hes and shes, two by two, strategies. The Congress requires the president to submit a national strategy, if not annually at least regularly and has done so in law since 1987. Administrations duly produce a national strategy and executive branch agencies generate a family of subordinate strategies in bewildering numbers, which then become the occasion for producing yet a further set of implementing operational and tactical documents in rococo detail, not to mention the follow-on budget documents purporting to add ways and means to all these ends. Virtually all of these documents are unclassified, available on line and are the product of intensive, intra- or interagency processes with many hands involved. Yet, the impression persists that there is no current strategy.
What follows relies on two propositions to address this conundrum: first, that what is currently called ‘strategy’ is in fact no such thing; and second, that in order to understand what strategy is it is necessary to analyze current ideas of what strategy is. The conclusion, stated here at the outset, is that we will see that current ideas of strategy actually make it impossible to have a strategy. One cannot square the circle, though it took two thousand years to realize that point. Therefore, what follows does not try to do what can’t be done, that is provide a solution. Policy prescriptions do not follow from the argument. We already have enough of these and we can see just how well they work and how long any of them last. If winning the Cold War did not lead to the kind of basic reassessment of our circumstances that require a strategy and consequent reorganization, and the resulting muddle has only led to squaring the error, then there is little hope in yet more policy urging.