Best Defense

How to deal with Libyan ambiguity: Define the problem, not the end state

I have been feeling a bit frustrated with the military’s inflexible attitude toward Libya: "Hell no, we won’t go without an end state." Here Capt. Crispin Burke tries to sort through the issue of how the military might better address the problem. Btw, young Burke just made the major’s list but politely declines to put ...


I have been feeling a bit frustrated with the military’s inflexible attitude toward Libya: "Hell no, we won’t go without an end state." Here Capt. Crispin Burke tries to sort through the issue of how the military might better address the problem. Btw, young Burke just made the major’s list but politely declines to put one of those tacky "(P)"s after his rank.

By Capt. Crispin Burke, U.S. Army
Best Defense Office of Wicked Problems Analysis

Tom writes, regarding ambiguity:

For the last 10 years, our generals have talked about the need to become adaptable, to live with ambiguity. Well, this is it. The international consensus changes every day, so our operations need to change with it. Such is the nature of war, as Clausewitz reminds us.

Well, sort of. We do need to deal with complexity, uncertainty, and so-called "wicked problems". But we do that through critical thinking, research, and analysis. We don’t embrace uncertainty; we reduce it. We reduce it not through arrogance, oversimplification, or pithy mathematical formulas — but through careful reflection, and thorough understanding.  

Traditionally, the military has valued an engineering approach to problem-solving. Formulaic methods, such as the Military Decision-Making Process, focus on well-structured, tactical problems. While an MDMP-formulated plan might be complicated, it’s by no means complex. For most tactical problems, there is generally one established solution. The mission, purpose, key tasks, and end state spelled out in an order from a higher headquarters.

Most importantly, the environment is relatively free from outside influence.

Using similar methods, the German General Staff, under the direction of Alfred von Schlieffen and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, meticulously planned the opening stages of the First World War. The vaunted Schlieffen Plan, much like its French counterpart, Plan XVII, was meticulous.

Yet, the Schlieffen Plan failed when subjected to the messy complexity inherent at the strategic level. The plan’s underlying assumptions — a mere six-week offensive in France, followed by a sudden re-direction towards the Eastern Front — would prove to be untenable. France was able to halt the Germans at the Marne, and the Russians were able to swiftly mobilize their army, trapping Germany in a two-front war.

And who could have predicted the most peculiar "Black Swan" of August 1914: two German capital ships would escape across the Mediterranean to Constantinople, helping to bring the Ottoman Empire into the War on the side of the Central Powers. (It’s no understatement that the improbable string of events associated with the "Flight of the Goeben and Bresnau" are still being felt today, in the fragmented nation-states left after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.)

End-states, clearly-defined objectives, and mission statements are important, don’t get me wrong. But problems arise when we apply this methodology to strategy. The world is far too complex for an engineering approach to strategy.  

Fortunately, US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s General Martin Dempsey is one of many Army leaders who understands the importance of mastering complexity and ambiguity. In a recent article for Armed Forces Journal, General Dempsey wrote:

The recent addition of design into our doctrine and into our education curriculum is another important step in changing how we develop strategic leaders. Design highlights the importance of framing and understanding both the operational environment and the problem to be solved before trying to solve it. It teaches the value of questioning assumptions and reframing the problem as events unfold and changes occur. Design is an important component in adapting our curriculum to educate leaders how to frame and reframe complex, ill-structured problems. It’s intended to encourage leaders to think "outside the lines" of existing paradigms. It’s also about valuing intellectual curiosity.


Much of the debate over Libya has focused on the end-state, exit strategy, and objectives. Few, however, have taken a step back and defined the Libyan problem itself. There are never operations orders for strategic problems. Thus, planners are rarely blessed with well-defined objectives. So rather than identifying the mission, per se, civil and military leaders might start by identifying the problem.

After identifying the problem (or problems), commanders and their staffs decide what problems are worth solving, how to efficiently solve them, and how to minimize unintended consequences. After putting together a tentative — and flexible — plan, commanders can then observe and react to unforeseen circumstances.

That doesn’t mean we should foster more uncertainty by "shooting from the hip". Rather, a Design approach allows commanders to understand the consequences of their actions, and to better anticipate the environment’s reaction. Of course, there’s uncertainty. But through careful analysis, questioning, and case studies, commanders and their staffs can minimize the proverbial "fog of war."  

So, for the moment, let’s stop babbling about mission objectives, end states, and withdrawal plans. Instead, let’s focus on the more immediate: the problems in Libya, their underlying causes. Next, we need to understand how solving one problem affects other problems? For example, what does action or inaction in Libya mean for regional stability? For the Arab Spring movement? For NATO? These questions are often glossed over in commentary on Libya, and they’re debates worth having.

Most importantly, though, we need to ask ourselves: what problems we should attempt to solve in Libya, and how do we best minimize unforeseen consequences?

Captain Crispin J. Burke is a US Army officer who has served in Fort Bragg, Honduras, Fort Drum, and Germany. He is a contributor to Small Wars Journal, and runs his own blog, Wings Over Iraq.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola