The Closet Moderate: Strategy and Tactics

Friday, November 07, 2008

Strategy and Tactics

One of the recurring notes throughout this campaign has been the invocation of jargon like "strategy" and "tactics" as a way to establish foreign policy chops. John McCain attempted to do this during a presidential debate when he asserted that "Senator Obama doesn't know the difference between a strategy and a tactic." It would've been a real zinger if he hadn't thereby implied that THE SURGE was a strategy.

You can think of any large-scale military endeavor on a couple of levels. First, there are the tactical minutiae of combat: how do I kill those guys 300m away using the capabilities I have at my disposal? You can expand the lens of tactics to larger scale considerations as well, including securing an area so that supplies can move freely, and so on and so forth.

We can conceptualize a strategy as an overall plan for victory. A solid strategy contains an internal logic that propels it toward the accepted definition of victory for the current conflict. Because of its broad nature, a strategy influences decision making at many levels, from battlefield tactics to logistics.

This is all a little arcane, so let's take a look at these concepts in (hot, napalm-y) action: the Vietnam War. General Westmoreland implemented a strategy of attrition according to which the massive US military machine would be used to drive up costs on the North Vietnamese until they decided "fuck it, this communism shit just isn't worth it" and leave South Vietnam alone. Victory! All of the horrors of the war were to some extent connected by this strategy. Everything from the Rolling Thunder campaigns to free fire zones, from kill counts to My Lai could be seen in the context of a war of attrition. It didn't really matter who you killed, because murdering the fuck out of anyone would make life worse for the North Vietnamese. Anyway, you can see that the strategy was driving the tactics, and the strategy itself was pointing at a condition that we (mistakenly!) believed would cause N. Vietnam to break off hostilities.

As an aside, much like strategic bombing campaigns, these "morale breakers" didn't really work. When you slaughter the fuck out of someone's village, the survivors are A) completely dependent on the government and B) hate you with the fire of a thousand suns because you just destroyed their livelihood and their family. When there's a ready-made national unification movement for them to hitch their wagon to, things tend not to go so well for you.

Anyway, Iraq is a bit atypical because we have no clear idea of what victory looks like. Yes, we'd like it to be fully democratic, pluralist and free, but it's a bit unclear how we use the Marines to do that. The problem is that the internal logic of our occupation was a bit weak. To wit:

1. Topple Saddam.
2. ...
3. Democracy!

There's obviously no purely military solution to our problems in Iraq, but we can understand the Surge (tm) as part of a unified political and military strategy to allow national reconciliation. The problem is, that with the election coming up relatively soon after the Surge was announced and the Iraq War, the President and the GOP deeply unpopular in the United States, the incentive structure for Maliki was, shall we say, skewed. Did pissing on fires all over Iraq give us any increased leverage over Maliki that might lead him to share power with the other factions in Iraq? Probably not. On the other hand it definitely improved the optics of the Iraq War at home in the United States, enabling John McCain to run on the "Surge=Victory" platform and eventually make it to a debate in which he idiotically called out his opponent for not knowing the difference between a strategy and a tactic.

On a larger scale, the problem with the Surge is simple. If I were a betting man in Maliki's shoes, and some unpopular lame duck came to me and said "I'm going to fill your country with soldiers, calm shit down and suchlike and in the meantime I want you to make nice with these other factions." My answer would be "Sure thing, Hoss! How much longer will you be running things over there?" Then, immediately after our conversation I'd set about entrenching myself in power and building alliances with people who share my interests so that once he's quenched the fires with American blood and gone home, I would be in a position to outmaneuver my rivals and run the country as I saw fit.

Obviously, the situation is a good deal more complicated than that, and nobody is sure exactly how it will play out in '09 and '10. I am prepared to offer the following bit of sound tactical advice to the readership: don't turn into a snake. It never helps.

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