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On War #112
April 15, 2005

On Strategy

By William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.]

Last week, a group of Marines asked me to meet with them to discuss the question of what America’s strategy should now be in Iraq. Rather than answer that, I would like to examine issues that get at a more fundamental point: How to think about strategy itself.

There are two basic ways to design a strategy. The first is to set a single strategic objective which, if you attain it, is decisive. However, if you fail to attain it, you lose. A classic example of this type of strategy is Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in World War I. The Schlieffen Plan sacrificed everything for one objective, getting behind Paris and encircling the French Army in a single vast Kesselschlacht. Graf von Schlieffen had no illusions about what failure meant. Shortly before his death, someone asked him what Germany should do if his plan did not work. He answered, “Make peace.”

An alternative type of strategy is one where you have a series of objectives, one maximalist, but others that yield partial successes or at least avoid outright defeat. This is how strategy tended to work in eighteenth century wars. My recommendation to the Marines was that they attempt to devise a strategy of this second type for the U.S. in Iraq. That will not be easy, as early blunders have left us in a weak strategic position. But it may be important, because the current all-or-nothing strategy, where the only acceptable outcome is a “democratic” Iraq that is an American ally, is likely to leave us with nothing.

The next step is to consider means. I suggested to the Marines that we need to identify a much broader range of means than we seem to be employing at present, where we too often consider only the “kinetic approach.”

Then comes the hard part: you need to relate your means to your new variety of ends in an intensive, iterative process where you carefully consider how means useful to one end may foreclose others. Indeed, you need to think about how one goal may foreclose other goals. This is a process far different from the sterile, mechanistic “Marine staff planning process.” It is an ongoing, intense back-and-forth discussion of the sort Colonel John Boyd emphasized was critical to approaching any strategic problem.

As part of this process, you may need to consider what bold, trend-altering actions you could take if your present course is not carrying you to your goal. In Iraq, one example would be announcing a date by which the last American troops would be gone from the country. I favor that, because I think the general trend in Iraq is unfavorable to even our minimal goal, leaving behind a functioning state that is not openly hostile to American interests. But here too there is a danger: you can end up taking an action that does shift the trend of a war, but shifts it against you. A classic example is Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.

My final suggestion to the Marines was that they think about our strategy in Iraq as a real-world problem, not simply as an exercise. It would be comforting to believe that in the Pentagon or at CENTCOM or in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” the sort of strategic analysis I have described is going on. Sadly, I doubt that is the case. An administration that has made loyalty to the White House’s maximalist objectives its most important test is not likely to encourage consideration of alternative strategies. When it becomes clear that we will not attain those maximalist objectives, there could be a sudden, desperate quest for some way out that leaves a few of our tail feathers intact. At that point, the thoughtful work of a small group of Marines might find an audience.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.