Dienstag, April 08, 2008

On Strategy...A Simple Reminder

Been offline the last few days, as reality intruded...as it does every once in a while.

This is for your consideration, a simple reminder of the problems we are facing in the next election cycle. You can download it at the link, I've taken the liberty to quote it here.

Lt. Col. Nathan Freier (that's him here) has written an insightful and relevant opinion editorial from the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College that I think bears greater reading. I'm going to comment on it as well, but this is not a fisking: it is an anti-fisking.

An honest survey of post-Cold War national security policy exhibits a dangerous
strategy deficit. The word "strategy" is overused. The concept, too, is poorly applied. It
is many things to contemporary policymakers except, well—strategy. In the current
environment, strategic communications and strategy have become synonymous

Here lies the crux: strategy has ceased to be strategy, but rather has become degraded and largely meaningless. Let me expound on that: everyone "knows" what strategy is all about, but because they don't really understand the difference between the two - strategic communications (in the broadest sense) and strategy itself - people confuse the two.

Strategic communications is the carefully crafted but overly general and widely
consumable articulation of key political messages—"assure, deter, dissuade, defeat";
"as they stand up, we'll stand down"; "clear, hold, build"; "phased strategic
redeployment"; etc, etc, etc. It is strategy by façade versus strategy through effective,
deliberate investment of intellectual, temporal, material, and human capital in pursuit
of well-defined outcomes.

Bingo, bingo, bingo: it is what for me is a recurring theme on this blog, that of the confusion between reality and rhetoric, of the problem of modern-day sophists and the culture of deception.

Let's look at his definition of strategy to understand the difference: effective, deliberate investment of intellectual, temporal, material and human capital in pursuit of well-defined outcomes.

This is in contrast to his definition of strategic communications: the articulation of key political messages.

So what is the difference? It's the difference of walking the walk and talking the talk, to put it in a popular phrase. Strategy is laying out the goal and how to get there: strategic communications is about saying what you want.

So far, so good.

Real strategy is the reasoned determination of specific, minimum essential objectives, rationalized with suitable ways to achieve them and the necessary means for success. No careful observer of executive decisionmaking since the end of the Cold War believes the latter high bar to be the norm.

Ouch. Of course not: strategy today is the realm of the amateur. It is, has been, and under the US constitution will remain the perogative of the President of the United States to determine strategy. The senior military should be the ones who listen and understand the President, but form the strategy based on broad goals. They have, however, been usurped by what I am going to cruelly call "wannabes", those that want to be the great strategists, but lack, more often than not, even the roughest idea of military strategy. I think this trend started back with Carter and his "outsiders": he came, after all, to Washington as a deliberate outsider, and promptly alienated his professionals by bringing in politically astute but inept people.

This didn't start with Carter: it's been, in many ways, the hallmark of US presidents since, roughly, the immediate post-revolutionary war period. It's just that during and after Vietnam - where the President (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all, if to a varying degree) got his strategic advice from the professional military - it was possible to place the blame for what was, fundamentally, a political defeat at the feet of the military and not only get away with this, but actually further your career by doing so. Having military officers move up into political assignments - Gen. Haig under Nixon - was also a professional error for the entire officer corps, in my (admittedly non-military) opinion: by becoming a bad politician, he helped tarnish the reputation of the US officer corps, reducing the reputation of that group in the eyes of political pundits and hence the public.

A fundamental component of strategy development is rational risk assessment. Risk—viewed as the likelihood of hazard in pursuit of objectives or the likelihood and consequences of failure—injects realism into strategy. Risk calculation offers decisionmakers the opportunity to see that both action and inaction engender costs—lives, money, time, freedom of action, political flexibility, loss of opportunities, etc. Costs accumulate.

Now this I like: professionally, I do risk analysis for industrial development, and it is used by clients for portfolio management (and internally we manage more money than I can even understand...).

Costs do accumulate. Let me take that risk analysis one step further: risk has everything to do with uncertainty. In Rumsfeld's words, they're all the factors: the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. The first two you can quantify and account for: the third is, per definitio, unknown. But establishing a risk framework can help enormously in exploring that realm: especially if you have a framework, a model, of known interdependencies and known relationships. If you find something not behaving according to these two, you have discovered that you now know an unknown...

When unaccounted for in decisionmaking, costs quickly and unexpectedly become excessive. Rational risk assessment also allows for the judicious consideration of the prospects and price of failure. Clearly, accounting for both the possibility of failure and the certainty of real cost forces decisionmakers to deliberately consider alternative courses of action. The contemporary temptation to mistake strategic communications for strategy short-circuits the aforementioned process. Rhetoric vice realism defines strategic outcomes. Once embedded in the public narrative of presidents, cabinet secretaries, and sympathetic pundits, these outcomes are not only absolute and nonnegotiable, but also, at the same time, excessively imprecise and

This is fundamentally true in terms of portfolio analysis: it behooves you to get out of high risk and low reward situations, unless you have a specific reason for being there (which of course changes it from high risk/low reward to high risk/high reward).

Identifying risks doesn't prohibit specific policy choices. Rather, it frames them in an
appropriate context. Without prudent evaluation of risk, the nation hazards embarking
down blind alleys with little thoughtful consideration for "Plan B." The conduct of the
Iraq War has been a clinic in this regard. The Iraq War proceeded in the absence of a
governing grand strategy and persistently fails to live up to expectations as a result.

Ouch. But so true: one of the major complaints that can be made against the left in modern America is a constantly shifting set of expectations as what is acceptable. When the US destroyed the government of Iraq during that brief conflict, the military reached its objectives and Bush claimed, properly so, "Mission Accomplished". It's just that this was not the only mission, and that the mission changed as that happened, one from destroying an organized military force to one of learning how to rebuild a country not merely damaged from a brief conflict, but one that had been repeatedly abused and was, effectively, a failed state even before the conflict began.

This is sadly unexceptional in recent American history. It is no accident that American
activism in the post-Cold War era has demonstrated limited enduring success. Intervention
in Somalia, peacekeeping in the Balkans, "Dual Containment," the domestic
response to September 11, 2001 (9/11), the War on Terrorism, confronting the "Axis of
Evil," stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Gulf Coast reconstruction all exhibit
one common feature. Each is marked by some significant disappointment or
indeterminacy. The form of each originated less from holistic strategic net and risk
assessment than from political instinct or impulse; and all—though individually either
essential or noble—proceeded without rational consideration of strategic context,
course, and risk.

Perhaps it is the policy of the United States to not have a strategic policy, just as it has been the policy of the United States not to have an industrial policy. But that is the rhetoric: the reality is much, much different.

The United States has pursued "strategy by exception" for 17 years.

To put it slightly differently: the United States has had no real, effective strategy since the collapse of Soviet Socialism. We defined ourselves too much as the opponents of the system, and while Bush 41 talked of a "New World Order" that could have developed into a new strategic mission for the United States, he lost that election and we got Clinton instead, the master of rhetoric and sophistry, the man who had absolutely no clue of the difference between Strategy and strategic communications, despite being quite good at the latter.

Seemingly awash in confidence and resources, American politicos persistently mistake raw capacity for infallibility. Yet, the secure maintenance of American position often benefits
more from careful calculation and premeditation than brashness. The latter, however, is
far more common. Today, there is no real strategy in effect befitting the security of a
singular superpower in an "all-hazards" environment. There is only the façade of
strategy—strategic communications without substance.

It's not so much awash in confidence and resources, but the simple fact that we won the Cold War. We didn't exhaust ourselves doing so, but the problem was that when you have made your career defeating someone, and win, then what do you do? The political pundits and politicians of the day started spending the Peace Dividend - which existed only in their feverish dreams - almost immediately without even thinking about the future. The end of the Cold War meant that the world wasn't safer (OK, the threat of global thermonuclear war was gone, but that was part of the game that was then over), but rather more dangerous. The West and the Soviets had played their power games in the Third World, fueling and dampening conflicts there as desired, but having the money dry up in the wake of the Soviet collapse didn't mean the conflicts were gone, but rather that they were now free from interference.

To re-iterate: the end of the Cold War meant that the world exchanged one danger, one risk, for another, but one that the politicians and pundits ignored entirely, as their focus was on the Great Game as well. Just because the West won the Cold War doesn't, didn't and never will mean that conflicts of all types cease and that a golden era will break out: but that is exactly what the pundits and politicians preached, greedy to get their hands on resources to buy votes.

There is no strategy visible in US politics today.

To be sure, presidents fulfill their legal obligation to articulate the National Security
Strategy on a semi-regular basis. Likewise, the president and individual executive
departments make periodic vision statements in functional areas of responsibility like
National Defense, the War in Iraq, Terrorism, Cyber Security, etc. All, however, are
heavy on themes and messages and light on detail. None can purport to involve the
detailed articulation of achievable, minimum essential ends, the balanced adjudication
of ways and means, and a thorough analysis of the risks associated with action and/or
inaction. Yet, meeting this high standard is critical to securing the national interest in an
era of extreme peril, enormous opportunity, and finite resources.

Bingo. Vision statements are exactly that: visions. These can be the vision of the City On The Hill, or they can be visions from the wrong kind of mushrooms. The leftist rhetoric of how the military prolonged the Cold War by inventing threats appeared to have been vindicated, since the Soviets were shown to be a paper tiger (which the left had, to a certain extent, claimed all along), but this is ignoring the fact that you have to have a real tiger to find out if the other side is real or made of paper.

When their party is in power, partisan gadflies will argue there is more to national
strategy than meets the public eye—strategic communications is simply the icing on a
larger, more carefully prepared national security cake. They should know better. There
is a saying in government—"policy isn't made, it accumulates." The same is true for
strategy. To the extent more substance exists, it is buried under a blizzard of
memoranda and PowerPoint presentations across dozens of government agencies.
None of it exists with the benefit of high-level integration. Today, national strategy is
not the product of reason and grand deliberation. Rather, it results from the incremental,
issue-specific accumulation of small decisions. Few of these decisions can claim origins
in a detailed, risk-informed strategic design. Thus, the second- and third-order
implications of each individual decision lie unconsidered and the prospects of failure or
excessive cost are consistently unaddressed.

This is the triumph of the sophist, the victory of the Cult of Deception: burying reality and wrapping its ghost in a tissue of rhetoric.

We are where we are in the world. Blame the strategy deficit. As America's
ambitious and influential gather for another cycle of national debate and political
renewal, it would serve them well to rebalance the relationship between what is truly
strategy and what is rhetoric without substance. The former is elemental to securing the
nation's position and interests. The latter is a clear path to unmet expectations, excessive
cost, and failure.

At this point, I'll become clearly partisan and say that the only candidate that can even understand this problem is John McCain. And a President Obama would make Carter look like a senior statesman in comparison.

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