- By Thomas E. RicksThomas 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 email@example.com.
By Paul Edgar
Best Defense Guest Columnist
To begin with, strategy is an attempt to control the future. Let the enormity of that proposition sink in for a moment.
Controlling the future is a demanding endeavor. At the very least, it requires talent and energy. Every presidential administration implicitly recognizes this. They all begin with a dream team of talented, energetic leaders. Sometimes they even have experience.
Remember the Anne Leibowitz Vanity Fair cover of President George W. Bush and his cabinet, published early in their first term together, before the unraveling? Who wasn’t impressed with the sense of power and control captured by that photo? Powell! Condi! An experienced vice president and secretary of defense! Come on. This one is in the bank!
Of course, that supremely talented group of people ate a supremely large slice of humble pie. President Barack Obama’s administrations may have avoided a helping quite as big, but it ate from the same pie nonetheless. And so it goes. The Trump administration seems to have an IV sunk deep into its radial artery, delivering a steady flow of humble pie.
Why? We could reduce our explanations to ad hominem attacks, launched at those mentioned above and others like them. But many of us have struggled in the same ways, at lower levels of leadership. So more constructively, we could admit that strategy is hard. After all, it’s an attempt to control the future.
Using theory, history, current events, and personal experience, this series will examine several aspects of national and military strategy that regularly stump the best of us. The articles will highlight failures and a few successes.
Why spend a few minutes to read yet another article on strategy? Because perusing the headlines of our national security commentaries, one might mistake strategy for something easy. For example, “It’s the globalization, Stupid!” Ah, yes. Thank you, Roberto. How did we ever miss it, this globalization thing you speak of, and its predictable effects?
But as an introduction, let’s begin with the proposition that there are really only two views of strategy, albeit many variations between them. Most of us involved with national security hold the first view: It is possible for human beings to control the future. The opposite view is rare and, in many respects, counterintuitive to the way we normally experience life. Yet it is a powerful perspective and deserves consideration: It is impossible for human beings to control the future.
Regarding the first view, the degree of control we presume to impose on the future is moderated by our view of human agency in general and our own agency in particular. Some believe we have near-comprehensive control. Consider the now-infamous statements of a Bush administration official, sometimes attributed to Karl Rove, reported by Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
According to this official, there are those who create reality and those who merely react to it. Astute readers will recognize this as a global application of John Boyd’s “OODA loop.”
Others seek a degree of control that is less comprehensive, though eminently possible. For example, a few years ago, Foreign Policy’s Rosa Brooks recommended managing inevitable American decline in a manner that would produce the best possible outcome amongst a limited range of possibilities. We may not have absolute control, but we can manage it if we are clever enough.
Yet there are some who thoughtfully refute our ability to control the future in any meaningful way at all. Leo Tolstoy, of course, is the strategist’s model of the anti-strategist. But I like Heath Ledger’s exquisite interpretation of the Joker, Batman’s nemesis.
I just do things. The mob has plans. The cops have plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.
Unsurprisingly, not many people who think like the Joker or Tolstoy work in big government or big business. It takes a particular hubris (not always a negative quality) to imagine a new reality and then set it into motion. It is probably fair to say that anyone who reads FP believes we can and should control the future in some measure. This object of this series is to remind us what it is we are trying to do and why it is often so awfully difficult to get there.
Next week, we’ll review one element of Tolstoy’s argument against strategy.
Paul Edgar is a Ph.D. student in Middle East languages and cultures at the University of Texas and a Clements Center graduate fellow. Recently retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011 to 2013. He also has worked extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons