Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday's strategy word-mash

Over the weekend, SWJ ran a piece called "The Natural Law of Strategy: A Contrarian's Lament" (pdf) by an NDU professor named William J. Olson. The essay touches on a subject that's near and dear to my heart, and I read it with no small amount of interest. I'm disappointed to report that the few kernels of sensibility and insight that form the sub-structure of Olson's non-argument are largely obscured by his positively unbearable writing style. The author is clearly a man of wide reading and serious education, but I found this paper to be damned near unreadable. (You might do well to seek an explanation from Mark Safranski, who gave Olson's essay "Top Billing!") As a public service, I've tried to pull out the bits that strike me as meaningful and generally clear so that you don't have to muddle through the rest of the text.

Last things first: Olson's ostensible thesis statement comes in the third-to-last sentence of an 11-page paper:

The basic problem now is that what passes for strategy is actually serial operational and tactical plans that do not arise from a strategic cultural capable of providing the legitimizing context for what might be a strategy.
Gotcha. That I should have to go to the end of the essay to find what ought to come at the beginning is characteristic of what strikes me as a serious problem that contributes to the paper's lack of clarity: the argument is basically made backwards.
[C]urrent ideas of strategy actually make it impossible to have a strategy.
Fair enough.
[T]here is a disconnect between policy formulation and strategy, which is meant to bridge the gap between intention and action. If so, then the idea of incorporating „ends‟ into strategy seems amiss. Strategy, as such, is not about ends, which are provided by another, perhaps mysterious, process and handed off. There is no trinity of ends, ways, and means.
This point is well-taken: strategy's ends should be provided by policy. That is, the government ought to decide how it wants things to be, and the strategist should apply means along appropriate ways to achieve the derived ends.
The problem is, there cannot be, no, there shouldn't be, any strategy independent of its context, that is it cannot be considered separate from the non-strategic struggles that shape it (inter- or intra-agency, inter-branch, public discussions and debates). But for much of current strategy and for much of the way it is taught, that is precisely what is happening, that is, strategy is considered as somehow a separate phenomenon that can be understood as a thing unto itself. As a result, it is divorced from its meaning... What is clear is that one of the single most important elements in strategy, however conceived, has tended to disappear from the process, that is its political nature. [Emphasis in original]
(This extended clip ought to give you a window into just exactly why the entire piece is so difficult to digest.) I take this to mean that strategy is being developed without an understanding of the what for, or in fact even without a what for at all. This may not be the point that Olson is trying to make, but later comments about a lack of strategic culture indicate that he believes strategy is impossible because broader policy has no narrative or motive force. (Like I said: I could be wrong.)
[T]he consequence of such instrumentalized thinking is to equate strategy with the resources necessary to achieve it, and ultimately to reduce everything to a discussion of resources and how to make strategy conform with and confirm the institutional agendas of the players whose resources are at issue. Without a strategic culture that tames this tendency, there can be no strategic thought only the illusion of it.
In other words, the structure of the national security apparatus serves to exert a deforming influence on the strategy(/ies) it creates. Strategy is build backwards from resources and programs rather than forwards from foundational assumptions. I'm extremely sympathetic to this argument (assuming Olson is actually making it).
There is not a single, decisive source nor any precise moment that determines the national interest and no fixed decisions on what its elements are.
Word. I would only add that this is, to a certain extent, one of the limitations of republican government (which the United States can only be said to pathetically imitate when it comes to national security). Frederick the Great, Jomini, and Delbruck all recognized this, explicitly or otherwise.
[W]e have a security architecture based on a doctrine, containment, that no longer applies, responding to a threat, the Soviets, that no longer exists. What passes for strategy today, along with all the institutional means for developing strategy, are legacy habits and institutions marching to the sound of the last drummer.
This echoes the excerpt two before this one ("without a strategic culture that tames this tendency"). It's tough to know whether Olson means to say that we really have no "strategic culture" or that we simply operate with one that's a holdover from times gone by (as this latter quote would seem to indicate), but functionally the two criticisms are the same.
"Strategy" as such is now the province of bureaucratic mechanisms, most of which are under the Department of Defense. Unlike the processes leading to NSC-68, presidents, cabinet secretaries, Congressional leadership are largely irrelevant to the development and implementation of strategy beyond endorsing bureaucratic products or tweaking the margins, hence the disconnect with ends and the repeated, mainly bureaucratic effort, to find in present circumstances the types of existential threats that recapitulate the Cold War menace and thereby justify the elaborate establishment necessary to meet such a threat.
Yes. This sentence went on about forty words too long, but yes.

What I take from all of this is that real strategy -- that is, process: the thinking application of ways and means to accomplish policy ends -- is impossible without a clear understanding of national priorities in global context, and that our system of government makes it basically impossible to determine and achieve consensus on such priorities absent a specific set of geopolitical circumstances like those produced by the World Wars or the Soviet threat. I don't agree that it must be this way, but it's a provocative explanation for America's repeated strategic failures.

1 comment:

  1. I started reading the second block quote and I had flashbacks of trying to read Sartre & Heidegger ("a thing unto itself"? My Dasein!). Clear writing doesn't have to be simple writing, so it is a shame that Olson's writing obscures an argument that I am apparently sympathetic towards.

    I wrote recently that the Afghan war was so detached from reality and lacking meaning that we ought to just consider it a game. Olson seems to be less sarcastic about the point, but it stands: What are we trying to accomplish anyway? Why? How?

    While I'm riffing; I'd like to see a study on how the bureaucratization of government, especially in the post-WWII era, impacted FP strategy development. One of the salient characteristics of bureaucracy is the insulation against responsibility. I wonder if that plays a role here.