Politics and the American Way of War (and Strategy)

October 15, 2013

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What makes a good strategy?  One of the U.S. Army’s most distinguished scholars, Tony Echevarria, Jr., recently questioned the way we conceptualize and teach strategy. In an op-ed entitled “Is Strategy Really a Lost Art?” he noted:

One theme is constant: we call strategy an art, but approach it as a science. We praise creative thinking, but assess our strategies with formulae: strategy = ends + ways + means (the ends we want to achieve + the ways or concepts + the available means). This formula is as recognizable to modern strategists as Einstein’s equation E=mcis to physicists.

Echevarria’s spot-on commentary is critical to enhancing our conceptions of strategy making and implementation.  Far too often, American strategists, particularly those in uniform, think of strategy as a product of doctrinal process or formulaic conceptions in the physical domains.  In doing so, they ignore the influence (much less the near primacy) of politics.

Colin Gray notes that strategies exist to support the attainment of “policy as determined by politics.”  This is a lucid definition of national strategy, because it acknowledges that politics are infused in policy, and influence strategy as well.  Any good Clausewitzian must accept that politics does more than intrude in strategy and war.  Domestic party agendas, bureaucratic seams, competing economic and political interests, and the media all play a part in policy formulation, among many others.  Strategists cannot escape the role of democratic politics in the formulation and conduct of strategy.

However, American strategic culture, including its form of government, makes strategy particularly complicated. Our policymaking community must “craft and implement national strategy within a political system in which power is shared, authority is fragmented, and strategic consensus only rarely achieved.”  This two-decade old assessment from David Jablonsky is especially poignant given recent events in our nation’s capital.

This is a complication, but it should not be an excuse for artificially trying to isolate politics from policy and strategy development.  No true Clausewitzian would or should accept that. Yet as General David H. Petraeus wrote in his Princeton dissertation, “Though most military officers quote flawlessly Clausewitz’ dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, many do not appear to accept fully the implications of his logic.”

Petraeus is correct: many who profess adherence to the great Prussian’s creed often overlook the implications of his most profound observations.  As Sir Lawrence Freedman notes, one finds among American military thinking that “politics is often treated [by]…military theory as an awkward exogenous factor, at best a necessary inconvenience and at worst a source of weakness and constraint.”

As Freedman suggests, the U.S. military has displayed a historical aversion to both policy and politics, especially its domestic aspects.  During World War II, General Marshall chaffed at Presidential guidance that shaped operations in North Africa that he felt were framed by U.S. electoral cycles.  In Operation Just Cause, American planners failed to appreciate the political conditions for establishing a legitimate government once Noreiga was taken down.

But strategy is spawned at the nexus of politics,  intelligence and constraints  – something that should be obvious to any disciple of Clausewitz.  This aversion to politics breaks Gray’s proverbial “strategy bridge.”  The strategist, who serves as bridge between policy goals and military ways and means, must accept the historical fact that purely military or rational methods are not the norm in crafting strategy.  Strategies are iterative, whereas policy creation is usually the product of negotiation and compromise. And these compromises are hammered out in the discourse and dialogues of councils of war – in other words, in the realm of politics.  Military strategists cannot escape this by withdrawing into what Oxford University Professor Hew Strachan has identified as the American military culture’s embrace of the operational level and a “politics-free” mindset.

While the military may too often distance itself from politics, and therefore from the essence of policy and strategy making, the “black hole” where American strategy should reside is not entirely the fault of U.S military culture.  On the other side of the bridge, the civilian side, our civilian policy community sometimes distances itself from the realities and limitations of force, or avoids asking hard questions about how proposed “ways” relate to desired ends.  That question is the essence of strategy development, or what Echevarria aptly describes as the policy/strategy dialectic.  Only then will better strategies and better results be generated.

To be clear, the American form of government is not to blame for this disconnect.  Democratic states actually do strategy better than autocracies, over the long haul.  As Hal Brands has noted, one should embrace the messiness of democracy in strategy, for its downsides are far outweighed by the dynamism of plural perspectives. To ignore politics, believing one operates in a pure apolitical realm of strategy, is naïve at best, and dangerous at worst.

The aversion to politics is understandable: politics, like other human factors, is nonlinear, while military strategists often cling to rational and linear processes.  To return to Echevarria’s formulation, rigid adherence to the military’s doctrinal thinking about the best way to employ military force reinforces the “science” of war at the expense of the “art.”  Politics may introduce an element of non-rationality to a military strategist, or significantly alter the essential logic of a “way” within a strategy.

Yet the design and use of strategy is rarely a clean-cut case of rational choice or linear processing.  It is messy, permeated with shades of gray, and impregnated with politics.  For this reason, as hard as many strategists try, they cannot escape the influence of politics on strategy and strategic performance. The challenge for the modern strategist is not to eschew politics entirely, but rather to ensure that the competitive logic or victory mechanism of a proposed strategy is sustained despite the influence of politics, and that strategic coherence is maintained.

Echevarria is correct – we need less physics, and more creative thinking.  The simple construct we have long embraced for strategy – “Ends x Ways x Means” – may be obsolete, or perhaps our strategic short-hand needs elaboration.  Our theories and professional educational programs need to explore and resolve this challenge (although I know at places like the Eisenhower School at NDU the limitations of the simplistic formula approach are well recognized).  Strategy is an art, but planning may lean more towards science. Our understanding of the distinction is worth some further research.  The critical question that modern-day Clausewitzians have to answer is whether war’s logic can be understood and applied by a formulaic concept based on the belief that strategy can distance itself from the driving logic and constraints of policy, and the dynamics of applied strategy, which are inherently political in nature.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Defense Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University (NDU). These represent his own views and not necessarily those of NDU or the U.S. Government.


Photo credit: Katie Harbath

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18 thoughts on “Politics and the American Way of War (and Strategy)

  1. Frank:

    Nice piece. I would only add that the Counterinsurgency era of the past 6 years has caused some folks to think that its practioners are better at strategy since the language of Coin is infused with political terms therefore the military in this line of thinking has finally broken out of its isolated, operational world.

    But here is the rub. In the tactical application of American coin politics are a part of the tactics. For example when i commanded a Cav Squadron in west Baghdad in 2006 i dealt with local political matters on a daily basis. So just becuase politics are a part of the tactics of coin does not mean that the American army has become better at strategy and the politics of war. Or in other words being good at the politics of the tactics of Coin does not necessarily make one good at the politcs of war writ large. The two are logically different.

  2. Mr. Hoffman, Gian,

    The German word “politik” has a number of nuanced meanings. The German word Politik can also be translated as policy. The Clausewwitzian declaration that “Krieg ist die Fortsetzung der Politik (policy) mit anderen Mitteln” makes more sense to me when I apply the word “policy” instead of politics.

    Secondly, we tend to assume that everyone engaged in this conversation agrees what the word politics actually means when discussing Clausewitz or COIN. So, what exactly does the word politics actually mean today? I would think that the meaning of the word “politics” has evolved over time and these meanings have now been applied to Carl’s dictum, has it not?

    I’ve read definitions of politics that define it as “ways of organizing and doing” but also as a way of “thinking and feeling” and ” a kind of mentality”. Before we continue this very important conversation about politics, policy and COIN, is there a need to revisit key definitions?

    Finally, Clausewitz wrote that all strategy rested on tactical success alone, because only tactical success could produce a favorable outcome. I assume under tactical successes we could include tactical political or tactical policy successes. Why is it then that when engaged in COIN we win every tactical engagement/battle, but still lose the war? Why is it that Major General Carl von Clausewitz is wrong in this case?


    1. Howard Zinn had a good line: “All means become ends in the sense that they have immediate consequences apart from the ends they are supposed to achieve. And all ends are themselves means to other ends.”

  3. Isn’t beating Germany an end or endstate? And didn’t WWII planning involve the consideration of ways and means? The problem isn’t ends-ways-means but choosing dumb ends with ridiculous ways and means.

    This is the root of the problems and it’s painful to see it continue after no WMD in Iraq, an insurgency there and in Afghanistan, and Abbottabad with AfPak strategy logistical trains.

    A failure of ends. A failure of ways. A failure of means, full stop.

  4. Gentlemen, I find Gian Gentile’s comments very interesting and true. The liberal use of the word “politics” or its connection to strategy does not make “COIN experts” (COINISTAS) strategic thinkers. Frank Hoffman clearly lays out the astrategic nature of current military thought. Accordingly, those who claim that COIN, as a concept, is weak, or is much less that meets the eye,cannot sensibly come to this conclusion. Flawed strategy must be fixed before assessing the efficacy of doctrine or a particular manner of waging war. The last dozen years of war seem to support Hoffman’s claims much more than the claims of those who say that “COIN” is at the center of the failure to achieve policy objectives.

  5. The scientific interpretation of Clausewitzian doctrine is problematic. Perhaps it is time for a revisionism in Jomini’s artful forumlaes based on personal exposure to a master strategicst at work: Napolean. While Jomini saw the master in decision-making mode, Clausewitz viewed only the results of his COA analysis: thus the rise of a Prussian General Staff focused at the operational level, and subsequent PME seeking scientific answers. Then again, there are few who have demonstrated the strategic ‘genius’ that can reveal brilliance through an artful approach. You can’t teach that, can you?

  6. McCallister makes a good point on definitional issues. Not understanding the definition of politics leads some to radically misinterpret Clausewitz (i.e. Keegan in “History of Warfare”) and politics in general. Moreover it seems that defining politics is leading to territorial conflicts between disciplines, particularly political science and anthropology. In any case, it goes without saying that understanding the meaning of politics should be prior to any meaningful assessment of Clausewitz.

    As for the discussion of COIN, Clausewitz did acknowledge the value of tactical success, but there is no reason to extrapolate that to the level of strategy with an assumption that strategy should be tactics-driven. COIN that overemphasizes tactical success is strategically incoherent because it fails to articulate political ends. No amount of tactical success can offset the unfortunate fact that aiming for nothing will result in achieving it – every single time.

  7. All strategy is tactics-driven. This is not an assumption, it is a fact. Expand the concept of tactics. In COIN, all interaction with the local population is a tactical political act. How I break bread or sip my tea. Whether I purposely show the soles of my feet to shame someone or inadvertently shoot a family member at a checkpoint. These are all social and political events embedded in military tactics and are vital components of any “hearts and minds” strategy. If your tactics fail, so does your strategy. On the other hand, I can break bread and sip my tea correctly, keep the soles of my feet firmly planted on the ground and refrain from shooting family member at checkpoints. But this does not mean that I will succeed. No amount of tactical (political) success can offset a failed strategy if said strategy and its political ends are a product based on flawed assumptions concerning political development and modernization in specific regions of the Muslim world. We don’t have to rethink Clausewitz but we should rethink our assumptions concerning social change, political development, modernization and our role as initiators and managers of this change. The same applies to FID.

    COIN is dead. Let me introduce you to “pinprick warfare”.

  8. I agree with you on the essence of COIN, and of course tactical actions have political implications. Strategy being driven by tactics, however, is something else entirely. There is a tendency to allow tactics to determine strategy, which leads to a severe underemphasis on the notion of politics. Yes, tactics in “hearts and minds” COIN are partly about conforming to local politics, but this should not become an end in itself. The counterinsurgent ought to have a clear vision of his own political ends – simply conforming to local norms and ensuring stability, while important, is not a strategy in itself.

  9. Peter C,

    I get it. Shooting a bullet into an adversary’s head does not a successful strategy make nor does simply conforming to local norms and conducting stability operations to allow political development and modernization efforts to take root.

    So please, instead of telling me what doesn’t make a successful strategy, tell me what does/might. The military is in the business of winning the nation’s wars. We can debate the merits of war but in the meantime, military planners are still faced with planning military contingency operations in contested areas.

    I submit that a good plans and a good strategy is based on good and valid assumptions about us and our adversary. I would think that if a plan or a strategy fails, maybe the assumptions upon which the plan or strategy is based are faulty. I could be wrong.

    Hate to poke the bear repeatedly. It appears to me that the U.S. is on the receiving end of a successful adversarial strategy. If this is true, what is our adversary’s successful strategy based on and what are HIS assumptions about us?


  10. McCallister,

    Strategy is not something that can be reduced to a universal science, so any attempt to offer a successful strategy would be futile.

    That said, a successful strategy for a given instance would be successful (based on internal evaluations) if it effectively connects means to ends, typically military means to political ends. Political ends must be foremost.

    Combine that basic and well-documented observation with your own suggestion about the need for accurate assumptions and we have a great deal of common ground.

    Your final question is interesting and one that is certainly worth exploring. To which successful adversarial strategy do you refer?

  11. Peter C,

    If we can’t discuss strategy in universal terms, what use is the concept? We are actively deconstructing the concept of strategy into insignificance and worse have turned the idea of strategy into a one trick pony. Robert Taber in his book “The War of the Flea” writes that “modern industrial society cannot function, and its government cannot govern, except with popular participation and by popular consent… For the best of economic reasons, modern governments must seem to be popular.”

    Robert Faber might say that we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan and will fail in North Africa because we could not create the conditions to be popular in communities that are Muslim, have never been industrial nor experienced the behaviorant conditioning that goes with being a citizen of an industrial society. Nor share in its social and political experiences.

    What I’ve learned from this exchange is this. Political ends actually means to be liked or thought of as popular. So when we say “politics decides”, we are actually saying being liked decides. During COIN operations the military needs to be popular or seem to be popular or you lose. You gotta get the politics right (be popular) or nothing else matters.

    If this is the argument then achieving popularity through military means is indeed futile. We’ve painted ourselves into an intellectual corner. Maybe it’s a godsend that we can’t conflate politics, popularity and the military. We live in interesting times.

    To answer your question as to which type of adversarial strategy I refer. We are facing a form of Fabian strategy. Although normally considered a defensive form of warfare, our ghazi adversaries are exploiting this offensive-defensive strategy to harass, attrit, and wear us down through continuous losses in blood, treasure and honor to the point of us withdrawing from the field. In response to this strategy we might respond with a limited annihilation strategy (pinprick warfare) for example. You see, we can actually discuss forms of military and policy strategies in universal, scientific terms.

  12. McCallister,

    You misunderstand me. I was arguing that strategy cannot be reduced to a universal science – but an art it remains. My distaste for ‘strategy’ as a universal and objective science is another subject entirely.

    I don’t agree with your assessment of politics. COIN cannot be reduced to a public relations campaign. While this understanding of politics (being liked) is valuable for one aspect and variety of COIN, it is certainly not universally applicable.

    That said, you are certainly right when you acknowledge that military means (generally speaking) are not the best tools for achieving likability.

    No one is rejecting your invocation of ‘strategies’, only the implied assumption that strategy can be reduced to a universal science that is disconnected from the particularities at hand.

  13. Peter C,

    I very much disagree with your interpretation of what you believe I implied, or insinuated concerning the role of strategy, conditions and its functionality.

    For purpose of discussion I submit that strategy can be and will continue to be reduced to a universal science. No matter the many attempts to deconstruct the concept. For sake of an intelligent conversation, both parties must agree what the terms politics and strategy mean.

    During our correspondence I never stated outright, implied, or insinuated that strategy can be disconnected from a particular situation. There is no implicit statement to that fact in any of my comments. If you believe this to be the case then you are mistaken. But, I can make a case that a general strategy deduced from universal science and disconnected from a given particularity may be used to create the conditions for social change, rebellion or revolution. A strategy disconnected from a given particularity can create a condition that did not exist before.

    The circle is complete. You disagree with my definition and intended effects of politics. For sake of full disclosure, it is not my definition but Robert Taber’s but before we disagree too vehemently, please define and explain to me your terms and intended effects of politics.

    I believe that Machiavelli would agree with me and Taber concerning the definition and intended effects of politics. Politics is all about being liked or being feared (respected). How you achieve the two is an art which the Prince should contemplate and study diligently.

    Thanks for this interesting conversation but I believe we have beaten this dead horse enough. You have the last word if you choose.