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Theory, Policy, and Strategy: A Conceptual Muddle

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Theory, Policy, and Strategy

A Conceptual Muddle

by Adam Elkus and Mark Safranski

Theory, Policy, and Strategy: A Conceptual Muddle (Full PDF Article)

It is impossible not to notice that elements of the current acrimonious debates over theory, operations, and practice are proxies for larger political differences over the use of force and its relationship to American national interests. So why are these fundamental policy disagreements being expressed through debate over technical points of military doctrine?

The answer lies in the uncertain, even negligent, muddle that has substituted for a clear paradigm to guide US grand strategy. Because policymakers have failed to define clear US interests, goals, and objectives, attempts have been made to derive grand strategic principles from theoretical debates or operational concerns. While these debates have been intellectually stimulating and often very useful to developing US national security and military doctrine, they cannot sustain US grand strategy. While strategic drift might be inevitable in country where much of strategy is determined by the cleavages of domestic politics, the cost of meandering can be measured in lost opportunities, treasure squandered, and lives lost. Policymakers must make a stand for a strong strategic paradigm to guide US operational methodologies.

Theory, Policy, and Strategy: A Conceptual Muddle (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


Rigs (not verified)

Tue, 09/22/2009 - 4:02pm

Seerov- I think I weigh 'big war' capabilities as less urgent than you. The strategic mission I think is important, but the military posture that you think is essential to secure it, isn't. The damage and wear to materiel caused by our two current wars are cause for concern, however, but the loss of the FCS system should not cripple our military down the line. The acquisitions process drives our nation to buy things it likely will never need, and purchases at great expense. Historically, we have a poor track record of predicting needs for the next big war, so I support equipping the force for the wars we fight while also posturing R&D towards likely future scenarios. The acquisition process is the most unhelpful thing to our future force posture from what I have read - when the SecDef says he doesn't want a weapons system and the Congress tries to circumvent his wishes, that strikes me as absurd beyond words.

I am more concerned over our lack of realistic expectations for a future war, though. It will almost certainly be preceded by or started simultaneously with with a cyber attack that the DoD is woefully ill prepared for, judging by the reports that are coming out in the media. Focusing on the 'big war' breeds tunnel vision that prevents some from fully appreciating the asymmetrical threats.

Seerov (not verified)

Tue, 09/22/2009 - 12:48am

Rigs, you went to to say that you "disagree with the notion that COIN degrades our ability to maintain control of air, sea, and space."

First, I want to be clear that I do not assume a perfect trade off between COIN and "Big War" capabilities. Obviously much of the same training and equipment serve both functions. However, at some point the resources being used for large scale (Iraq size) COIN operations will interfere with funding in other areas.

The cutting out of Future Combat Systems (FCS) is proof of this. If the war in Iraq would have never happened, I'm pretty sure FCS would still be in the equation.

I guess its pretty simple: As a rule, the US should always be able to dominate air, sea, and space. Before anything else, this must be assured. After this is guaranteed, we can start prioritizing the other stuff.

If we want to institutionalize COIN and wish maintain our dominance over the land, sea, and air, then it will most likely result in slower upgrades in our ground force's "big war" capabilities? And while it does pain me to say this as an ex 11b, this is probably the right thing to do?

Seerov (not verified)

Mon, 09/21/2009 - 5:28pm

Rigs, I thank you for your comments and questions. There's no reason to act apologetic when asking such important and relevant questions.

I think your points on Afghanistan are valid. If I were to list the reasons for actions in Afghanistan it would be the following: 1) Not allowing a safe haven for International Jihadi training and planning 2) Having military bases in a location that could be beneficial for maintaining global hegemony 3) Maintaining stability in Pakistan (not allowing the wrong people to get Nukes).

I would allocate resources needed to accomplish and maintain these goals.

I would not recommend sending more troops and I wouldn't put too much hope in training Afghan's for the "National Army." I would pay local tribes and warlords to keep "pro-American" order.

The only development project I feel strongly about is building roads and a highway system. These roads would stimulate trade and would be defended by local warlords who would be paid bonuses for keeping there sector free of IED strikes and ambushes.

I share your sentiments that Afghanistan isn't really that important for our Nations interests. If it requires no troops to maintain the goals I listed then so be it.

I'll be back later to comment on your other comments.

Rigs (not verified)

Mon, 09/21/2009 - 2:34pm

Seerov, I am inclined to agree with most of your comment, essentially that the Grandest of Grand Strategy is essentially an effort to maintain global hegemony. But if so, how does Afghanistan fit into that strategy? Do we really want to go 'economic hitman' on Afghanistan and open up their markets with favorable trade terms? We really have nothing to gain by strong-arming them economically as we have done so many times in the past to other (more economically useful) countries. What do we have to gain by a generation long occupation and democratization operation in Afghanistan that can't be more cost-effectively achieved by other means? There are other means of shoring up Pakistani stability and denying terrorist groups safe haven in 'AfPak'. (note, these are questions that come up while reading your comment, not shortcomings in your argument)

Perhaps Iraq is a better fit for the global hegemony strategy, especially in the context of a PR campaign ramping up for a cultural/economic push against the 'axis of evil' further down the strategic pipeline.

I disagree with the notion that COIN degrades our ability to maintain control of air, sea, and space. COIN & Stability operations could be a very useful capability in embattled regions around our shipping lanes and natural resource nodes. Neo-colonialism under the guise of stability operations perhaps, but I think that is less disingenuous than using economic leverage to secure trade concessions. With the institutionalization of COIN capabilities there will obviously be a desire to deploy those capabilities when we reach a satisfactory end-state in the current wars. Whether under the guise of the GWOT or perhaps a humanitarian mission, I think the lessons learned from these wars will be packaged up an employed elsewhere in the relatively near future. I wonder if we as a nation will be as hesitant to deploy such missions to embattled regions around the war, as the 'Black Hawk Down' incident fades from popular memory and images of pirates and terrorists fill the news.

I'm just musing on the implications of our current wars and how to connect the dots bewteen operational strategy and dollars spent in the current conflicts versus what I assume to be strategically advantageous for the country. Take such musings with a ramen noodle level of salt.

Seerov (not verified)

Sun, 09/20/2009 - 10:21am

American grand strategy seems to have the following objectives:

Stopping the rise of any competing Eurasian power(s) that is/are powerful enough to challenge and/or disrupt America's economic and political dominance.

Economic and political dominance is sustained and spread by implementing American rule sets and system integration. The idea is to create a system of systems which places the US at the top of hierarchy and at the most influential node within the network.

The strategy for doing this varies from opening our markets, to trade deals, loans, aid, covert action, subversion, or military action. One of the more important strategies is to disrupt possible alliances between nations. This is done by making the US a more attractive partner and by playing nations against each other.

Perhaps the most important aspect of American power is America's wealth. America must remain the center of innovation in the global economy. It should be the world's best place to do business and offer the best markets. Our markets should be one of our greatest leveraging tools.

So its not really that difficult. America's main goal is to increase power and resources. This is done in numerous ways but the most important is by being the center of economic power. This will sustain America's ability to control the air, sea lanes, and space. The trade off for these capabilities is in COIN capabilities(sorry SWJ).

The biggest challenge for the US this century will not be foreign powers. Instead, it will be the internal cohesion of the US itself. This is much more complicated than grand strategy. Grand strategy is just determining how America will remain the global hegemon. In contrast, to remain a stable nation America will have to determine what it even means to be an American?

I'd just like to also recommend the SSI monograph "Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy" that A.E. links to and references above.

I believe its critical to understand that in establishing operational art as a middle level between tactics and strategy, and also defining it as a primarily military level, we support writing and following a publication like FM 3-24 as if it is merely in the service of strategy. Actually, it is a document of strategy. Thus our selection of 3-24 as our guiding light is selection of a strategic playbook, whether or not we explicitly intend or understand this. It may be the correct strategy, but we also need to realize that by following it, we have also bought into specific assumptions of acceptable strategic outcomes--a functioning host nation with a democratic government--and if we are going to partner in counterinsurgency operations with that government, its approach and ideals must also match FM 3-24 or else we create a distinction in the minds of the population between our actions and those of the government we are supposedly allied with. All of this may line up, but I'm not sure that we want our strategy-making to be so restrictive as to come from an FM.

Many of the arguments of different strategies, for Afghanistan in particular, in this and other threads, have to do with different conceptions of strategic outcomes. As I said, the 3-24 approach can be the correct one, but only in the service of a specific outcome.

Your first paragraph is fine. The second leaves me scratching my head Dan - and has little do with the issue at hand other than a shot at Secretary Clinton. Is that what you intend and exactly why?


Sat, 09/19/2009 - 5:31pm

Many, many thanks for this! I have lately been scratching my head over our various announced and unannounced 'strategies' for Afghanistan and wondering whether it is I or the higher levels of our government and military that just don't know what strategy is. You have reassured me that I am in the clear.

Is this a work in progress? If so, two quibbles: 'counterterrorism strategy' is a term, not a word. And Hillary takes two ells. (The way I remember that is 'Billary', from the two-for-the-price-of-one presidency.) Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

You can make a case that the default grand strategy that the United States followed from 1789 to 1948 was the one devised by Alexander Hamilton based on the inspiration of Sir Robert Walpole and earlier Dutch models. This consisted of:

<li>A strong navy</li>
<li>Government encouragement of manufactures</li>
<li>Growth of deep financial markets, encouraged by government borrowing through a permanent national debt</li>
<li>Strong central government, especially in relation to international finance</li>
<li>Encouragement of the growth of a national merchant marine</li>
<li>Internal improvements</li>

While there were occasional competitors to this vision such as the South's strategy that mixed cash crop economics, conquest for the purpose of acquiring new agricultural land for cash crops, free trade to cheaply acquire goods in exchange for cash crops, a weak central government, narco/cotton states' rights, and treason, essentially the Hamiltonian vision prevailed, especially after the War of Northern Aggression. Some historians have argued that it was the United States' attachment to this traditional grand strategy that produced the systemic shocks that led to the Depression and World War II. In fact, the Hamiltonian grand strategy should sound familiar. China has been following it since Deng's reforms. World economic imbalances therefore strangely resemble those of the 1920s and 1930s when the US was in its full Hamiltonian flower.

The problem that many who argue that the US should go back to an earlier strategic configuration is that the Hamiltonian grand strategy is a <i>challenger</i> grand strategy. The US is no longer the challenger, it is the <i>challenged</i>. If inertia is adopted as its default grand strategy, it has no way to go but down. Whether we are at a plateau or at the beginning of a descent into increasing powerlessness is a more open question than many would suppose.


Sat, 09/19/2009 - 12:30am

In response to the anonymous poster(s) who keep(s) asking Col Gentile to formulate a strategy simply because he has issues with our current one (or lack thereof)...

That is like asking a mechanic to build new car because he doesn't like the one that he's looking at. A mechanic doesn't design, manufacture, and market a car. But he can generally diagnose a problem or recommend someone who can, and perhaps fix the problem, recommend another mechanic, or explain that it is beyond repair. Likewise, strategies are not formulated by one person in his free time. But they can be fairly critiqued by one person and improvements suggested.

I think that continually asking for Col Gentile to formulate a new strategy is a tad clownish.

The importance of the SSI article is that the legacy of the 1980s revolution in military thought (particularly the context of the Army and the AirLand Battle and Maneuver Warfare concepts) are probably the biggest unexamined data points in current American defense thought in the counterinsurgency era. It may seem counter-intuitive now, but the conceptual frameworks cemented are in many respects a part of the framework from which we are discussing the current problem.

Also commenting a bit on what Joseph Fouche posted: he makes the good point that Cold War was in many cases an exception to the rule. We need to dig a bit deeper in looking at American foreign policy and strategy, beyond the frame of the 20th century and its organizing frames to look at the 19th century and the often acrimonious conflicts over policy and direction. I think those may provide us with clearer insight on the problems we face now.

Rigs (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 7:25pm

I'd like to thank both authors for weighing in already. It's rare that a dialogue can take place with the author(s) of the articles one reads on a daily basis.

Zen, that was a great post and I like the ideas. Rational, well reasoned and therefore <i>completely impossible</i> to implement given American politics. Tongue in cheek commentary aside, well done gents. I hope your ideas have enough support across the USG to see some change in my lifetime without the need for a catastrophic crisis and/or cult of personality.

That SSI article linked above goes a long way to fleshing out this discussion, and brings folks like me up to speed on the historical context which is quite informative and not frequently dredged up on the blogosphere.


Fri, 09/18/2009 - 6:49pm

Thank you all for the kind words and helpful criticism. Adam has weighed in already but I thought I would add a comments:

Hi Rigs,

You wrote:

<b>"This statement combined with the final paragraph make this a conclusion-less paper that I hate reading...."</b>

You are right that our conclusion was weak rather than sharp and tight.

As a practical matter, an in-depth look at a prescription for improvement would have made for a much longer article and probably would be best dealt with separately from identifying the problem of not having a grand strategy.

Part of any necesary systemic reform relates to a long term overhaul of our higher educational system, as in the link Adam provided up thread. In the medium term, institutional reform of the structure and most importantly, the personnel systems of the military, the State department and related agencies. Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes did fine work in their day, but the "engine" needs more than a tune-up. It needs rebuilding for the 21st century. These things are necessary but will not produce any results in time for our immediate situational problems in Afghanistan. Or elsewhere.

What about the short term? What can be done on grand strategy that is "fast and dirty"?

I'll be frank, if this was easy or likely to succeed there would be no need for articles of this kind. I'd suggest the convening of a bipartisan "ExComm for Grand Strategy" to define a limited set of broad objectives in a durable consensus that is sustainable across the political elite from center-Left to center-Right for the long haul. This is the hard task that our civilian leadership of both parties have so far avoided in favor of more partisan iterations of national policy.

I'd bring in a handful of very bright, eminent, apolitical outsiders ( scientists, historians, futurists) into the mix of usual USG/DIME "wise men", who see beyond the usual institutional legacies/political gamesmanship and can look at the picture in terms of larger, connecting, systems. We need insiders but also a few fresh eyes of proven problem-solving abilities.

No guarantee such an effort would work (see Iraq Study Group), or that the "ExComm" would produce results with enough political "cover" for both administration and opposition to embrace, but the exercise of trying to create a framework for guiding all of our downstream actions and policies would at least be useful as an example in strategic thinking for policy.

It's important to remember that war (and strategy, grand or not) is a continuation of <i>political</i> intercourse with the addition of other means. Let's ponder the full implications of that for a second. Our politics are divided, illogical, and incoherent. If strategy is truly a continuation of politics (and the double meaning of Clausewitz's original <i>Politik</i> allows us to draw that conclusion more that the Paret-Howard translation of <i>On War</i> would reveal), than any war that we wage would inevitably be divided, illogical, and incoherent. If there was a portion of the political debate that was united, logical, and coherent, similar to the general consensus about the Cold War shared by both parties between 1948 and 1965, than the strategy and the wars it waged would be, similarly, united, logical, and coherent. Elkus and Safranski's conclusion that we must wait for a "powerful individual and the right constellation of political-economic forces" is only stating the truth about our political system. The American system of government is driven by 1) crisis and 2) personality. Pretending otherwise and believing in fantasies like electing rational and virtuous politicians or politics free "policy" making is ostrich in the sand thinking. The solution to the dilemma Elkus and Safranski discuss is "get good politics", a result that will only ever result from a "powerful individual and the right constellation of political-economic forces".

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 4:48pm

Go get 'em Also Anonymous. I'm still waiting on a couple of other threads for the same thing. All is quiet on the Western Front...

also anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 3:12pm

Gian P. Gentile,

"The point is that there needs to be a top-down grand strategy context for Afghanistan, instead of a middle-up operational strategy cum grand strategy that justifies its own existence for the sake of its own existence (or more generously, on tacit strategic assumptions that are ill-defined and of spurious merit)."

Thank you for clarifying that. Those of those us with limited intelligence capacity don't differentiate, with any degree of precision, between "strategy" and "a top-down grand strategy context for Afghanistan."

Be that as it may, my simple request remains: why don't you give us your formulation of "a top-down grand strategy context for Afghanistan"? You've previously told us (on two occasions) that you could do so in one short paragraph. I know you are busy man (certainly more busy than I), but don't you think that a man of your caliber would add greatly to the discussion on SWJ by providing your version of what "a top-down grand strategy context for Afghanistan" should look like?

If for some reason you are hesitant to forumulate such a paragraph because you DON'T think it would be helpful to the discussion, please be dissuaded of this notion. There are a great many of us who appreciate your obviously tremendous intellect and would value greatly your formulation of how our nation should be dealing with afghanistan.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 2:58pm

A good strategy would align means with political ends. If the chosen operational method is population centric counterinsurgency aka nation building, then good strategy demands the kinds of resources that General Krulak called for in his letter, an increase in troops in the "hundreds of thousands." In the absence of those kinds of numbers then it is my belief that good strategy demands a different tactical and operational approach to achieve policy goals.

Until we bring strategy to coherence with regard to what I said above, we will never have a good one in Afghanistan.

Rigs (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 2:51pm

also anonymous - I think the 'operational strategy as grand strategy' argument goes beyond simply Afghanistan (in this essay, phrased as "Deriving strategy from the strategic environment"). The point is that there needs to be a top-down grand strategy context for Afghanistan, instead of a middle-up operational strategy cum grand strategy that justifies its own existence for the sake of its own existence (or more generously, on tacit strategic assumptions that are ill-defined and of spurious merit).

Also, point taken about increasing the FP planning role of the State Dept. Perhaps I initially minimized the importance of bureaucratic impact on incoming administrations in my mind - I certainly think that the State Dept. <i>should</i> be planning strategic policy to a larger extent than I currently see. I'm not saying this was a bad article, but my inner bureaucrat likes to see some suggestions. My inner academic can also appreciate the "further examination needed" conclusion, ha ha.

Bottom line at the bottom: I enjoyed this article, it is an extremely important concept that is ill explored. Perhaps I can carve out some more time to explore the SWC, but lurking takes up so much time in and of itself.

also anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 2:20pm

Gian P. Gentile,

"Hence we should be worried when we here statements like "counterinsurgency strategy" or the elevation of Coin tactical methods like "population protection" to strategic principles and maxims and then become a substitute for good strategy."

This statement, of course, begs the question.

Define good strategy for us. Or, better yet, define what a good strategy in afghanistan for the United States in the fall of 2009 might be. We all know you are capable of doing this.

Those of us with IQs south of 100 would benefit greatly from this.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 2:11pm

I thought this was a very worthwhile essay by Elkus and Safranski in exposing the problems and traditional dysfunctions of Americans trying to do strategy and policy, especially when engaged simultaneously in war. I also acknowledge and appreciate Rigs's point above that the article just exposes yet doesn't really provide a solution to the problems at hand. Fair points, to be sure, and it may be that in the case of policy and strategy and the American Way of War that historian Brian Linn is correct when he says that the American Way of War has not been one of either attrition or annihilation (the Weigley thesis, and hyped up on steroids by the coindinistas) but instead one of adaptation and flexibility. I think that that overarching notion then allows for the trends that Elkus and Safranski put forward. The trick though is to be aware of the perils and pitfalls of these trends.

The authors list four essential "trends" that they argue (rightly I think) operate as a sort of fill-in for a greater lack of overall ability to formulate grand strategy. These four trends are:

*Deriving strategy from the strategic environment.

*Reacting to changes in the character of warfare.

*Threats-based planning.

*Extrapolation of operational approaches to the strategic level.

The authors correctly point out that these trends can (and have) often produced dysfunction in policy and the doing of strategy. I would only add, though, that if we are to be concerned with the most dangerous trend now in terms of our war in Afghanistan that has the most immediate and costly effects, it is the last trend, or as they frame it the "extrapolation of operational approaches to the strategic level." Hence we should be worried when we here statements like "counterinsurgency strategy" or the elevation of Coin tactical methods like "population protection" to strategic principles and maxims and then become a substitute for good strategy.

"This statement combined with the final paragraph make this a conclusion-less paper that I hate reading" -Rigs

Conversely, I thought this paper was timely and much needed. As much as one may hate to read this type of analysis, the authors begin to address step one of organizational design- KNOW YOURSELF.

Our foreign policy is as muddled as our society is a melting pot. We still remain the "Great Experiment" in governance. Simultaneously, when we assume that our system is full-proof, our ideas are universal, and our actions are ALWAYS perfect, we begin to set "maximalist objectives"* that often defy reality.

Thus, this paper does not provide answers. It does something much more important. It helps us describe ourselves.



*as defined by BG McMaster and reported by Tom Ricks.

I also think you are fundamentally correct that we have to demand better competence at statesmanship from our elected representatives. That is probably the most important step that is going to really help us move forward in the long term.

Mark Safranski has also written some good material about the problems of strategy and the educational system, material for an follow-up to this article perhaps:


I understand that it does make for a weak conclusion, but it is extremely difficult to shift a nation's strategic culture. American historical experience suggests that chance and the constellation of forces does play an important role in the eventual end to strategic drift. Clarifying and understanding the reasons why strategic drift occurs can help lay the groundwork for such a shift as well.

There are, however, some structural steps that we mentioned in the article, chief among them the strengthening of policy planning instruments in the State Department and War College/PME-style instruction in strategy for diplomats.

Additionally, I also think that forums like SWJ have done a great deal to already open up and advance the state of the debate in a manner that many underrate.

Rigs (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 1:37pm

Col. Gentile should love this article. It would have been very useful a week ago during the Gen. Krulak email debate.

<i>Strategic drift is a traditional American problem, but one that has been exacerbated by the lack of a clear paradigm and the existential threat of a hegemonic adversary</i>

This statement combined with the final paragraph make this a conclusion-less paper that I hate reading. The authors are essentially saying that our political system is borked due to strategic drift and an adversarial political system that undoes the policies of the former administration. This is all true, and for better or worse we're seeing it right now, most recently with the revised missile shield policy. However, to say that we must wait for a "powerful individual and the right constellation of political-economic forces" is a weak conclusion. Unless people are getting sick of this representative government thing, something <i>has</i> to be done to address the strategic shortcomings that this type of government allows for.

<i>But the basic problem remains that policy elites increasingly lack the experience and cognitive frameworks to create strategy</i>

(in my best chef Ramsay voice) STANDARDS! American citizens have none. To quote senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) from Bill Maher's movie Religulous, "you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate." The fact that we do not demand the utmost from our representatives is a failure of the American people, and in my snap judgment, the education system in our country.

Overall I think this article just exposes a systemic issue that we all know is already there, and has unfortunate consequences for the military in the form of deployments with no clear strategic objective.