Small Wars Journal

Effective Policy Requires Proper Preparation; Otherwise You May be Surprised by the Mess You Get Us Into

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 9:27am

Effective Policy Requires Proper Preparation; Otherwise You May be Surprised by the Mess You Get Us Into

Roy M. Diehl

Carl von Clausewitz had some very clear advice for policy makers: “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.  The former is its political purpose; the latter its operations objective.”[1]

Yet that is exactly what we have done, time and time again, one administration after another, decade after decade.

A Democrat committed us to the fight in Vietnam, a Republican threw in the towel.  A Republican tried to bring peace to Lebanon, only to leave in failure.  A Democrat tried to do good in Somalia, only to be forced out. A Republican got us into Iraq, a Democrat gave up and left.

There is a consistent thread running through all these conflicts, spanning half the globe over a span of half a century: the leaders of our government committed forces to the conflict without having first thought carefully about what they were getting into.  They seem to have thought they could simply decide something needs to be done and then leave it to the professionals to figure out exactly what to do.

But that is not the way the world works – even if it is how very intelligent people are used to doing their work.  Clausewitz claimed that leaders should not even attempt to assess the possible aims of an imminent war or the resources it might require until “every circumstance has been examined in the context of the whole…”[2]

He describes this task in more detail:

“[W]e must first examine our own political aim and that of the enemy.  We must gauge the strength and situation of the opposing state.  We must gauge the character and abilities of its government and people and do the same in regard to our own.  Finally, we must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect the war may have on them.”[3]

Developing an understanding of the opponent he held as essential, not just in terms of the military objectives for strategists, but much more importantly in terms of the political objectives the government seeks to achieve. 

War in every respect is reciprocal, he observed. “In war,” he wrote, “the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.[4]  He described it as “the collision of two living forces... I am not in control; he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.”[5]

He held that there should be “proportion between action and political demands” so that “means” should be “commensurate with ends,”[6] because the “degree of force” to be employed “depends on the scale of political demands on either side.”[7]

Military victory is often incomplete, he held, and may well be reversible.  “We may occupy a country completely, but hostilities can be renewed again…”[8] “The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”[9]  This risk remains until the enemy determines to accept the situation as it is and abandons an intention to attain its objectives by force.

While Clausewitz was able to refer to states in his writings, we must look deeper in order to build a reasonably good sense of who is who on the world stage.  Even in Clausewitz’s time he noted how war had gone from being the affair of governments, the role of their people being only as an “instrument,”[10] to the concern of the people[11] of entire nations.

Since his time, nations have evolved internally to what Clausewitz would have understood as coalitions of independent states.[12]  Governments themselves are dependent on the willing cooperation – or coerced obedience – of a complex mass of communities within their jurisdiction, each with its own sense of identity, its own interests and concerns, its own understanding of its relationships with other communities, and each capable in some degree of offering, conditioning, or withholding support for the decisions and actions of the government.[13]

Identifying and understanding communities is not a matter of demographics, economics or some other form of data to analyze.[14]  Communities are groups of people who share an understanding of themselves and the rest of the world, aspirations, fears, hopes and hatreds.  They share a sense of justice, of success, of threats, of wounds.  They look to a common inspiration, speak a common language, advance a common cause.

A community may or may not be an active force in politics.   It may or may not have wealth or prestige.  Its voice may or may not be heard, it may or may not respect other communities or be respected by others, whether on the world stage or even inside a single country.  It may be a majority or minority, it may have a deep sense of self, it may even be a fiction created largely by others.

In all cases, though, each and every community is composed of human beings exercising the same power of thought to understand the world around them and their place in it, to relate to other communities, to evaluate their situation.  They act as they see best accords with their appreciation of right and wrong, good and evil, benefit and harm. 

Understanding all of these communities and their attitudes and relationships constitutes the “context of the whole” in which the “circumstances” of conflict must be examined.[15]   Whatever our policy objectives may be, success will depend on gaining adequate support among enough communities, overcoming opposition in critical communities, each of them on their own terms, as they perceive the policy from their perspective.

Working through Clausewitz’s list of circumstances,[16] policy makers need to examine the “political sympathies” of various communities.  Who are they disposed to favor or oppose?  Why?  How strong are those sympathies?  What is their foundation?  History?  Geography?  Kinship?  Religion?  Economics?  Political philosophy?  Convenience?  Fear?  Envy?  A common enemy?  A shared hatred?  Are these bonds strong?  Stable?  Ancient and enduring?  Deeply and broadly held throughout the community? 

What of the character and abilities of the various communities?  Are they well-organized?  Cohesive?  Industrious?  Honest?  Open?  Or are they excessively sensitive to criticism?   Do they govern themselves?  Operate civic institutions, like schools and hospitals, banks and utilities?  How do they pay for what they do?  Do they tax themselves?  Or do they depend on support from others? 

What is their strength and situation?  Are they prosperous?  Secure in their resources?  Internally united?  Do they maintain their own policy force?  Do they have military power?  Are they dependent on others?  Dominated by others?  Dependent on others that they dominate?

Finally, what of their political aims?  What do they want?  Land?  Power?  Freedom?  Revenge?  Why do they want it?  What they willing to do to get what they want?  What sacrifices are they willing to make to get it?  Do they want to change the status quo?  Restore the status quo ante?  Or preserve the status quo against threats of change?

These are questions every maker of policy needs to ponder continuously in order to do their work, whether they are confronting a crisis, dealing with a conflict, or simply considering an action that may excite opposition or stir up hostility.

What is on the minds of the various communities we may want to influence?  How are they likely to respond to a particular objective we may have?  Support?  Opposition?  Will they just not care?  Look for ways to use it to their own ends?  Perhaps even to use it against us?

If there is a fight, will they fight with us, support our fight, sit by and watch us fight, support the fight against us, or perhaps take advantage of the fight to achieve ends of their own?

If they are hostile to us, what are their aims?  Who else may they be hostile to?  Is their fight actually with us?  With what we stand for?  With someone we stand with?  What do they want to achieve?  What do they think they can achieve?  What price are they willing to pay?  What cost do they want to impose on us?

Even more important, What do we think of their aims? Are they aware of how we think?  Do they care?  What arguments – other than those of the force of arms – have they made to support their aims?  Are the aims somehow justified?  Reasonable?  Extreme?  Unjust?  Intolerable?  Are we opposed aims?  Or the means they’re using?

There are obviously limits to the depth and detail for this kind of inquiry, and it is impossible to reach definitive and final conclusions.   As Clausewitz noted, the “political situation can change from year to year,”[17] and reactions to a situation can differ not only between communities, but even within the same community over time.[18]

But, as Clausewitz so clearly observed, you have to build your decisions on something, even if it is imperfect and subject to change.  The better the effort put into the examination of circumstances “in the context of the whole,” the better the preparation for the work of crafting effective policy and the more likely the achievement of desired aims.

This work, unfortunately, is something our nation’s leaders have become wholly unaccustomed to doing.  If you look for the policy on which the National Security Strategy is built, for example, you will need to imagine one.[19]

With regard to the communities actively waging or threatening to wage war against us, our friends and people we sincerely believe deserve protection, the strategy shows no examination of their character and abilities, the strength and situation or the political aims – critical aspects of the “circumstances” and “context” for policy and the strategy intended to support it. 

Instead, the “persistent threat of terrorism” is presented as little more than one item in a list that includes climate change and infectious disease.  Leaders of states such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Russia are addressed as though they were ill-behaved children or poorly-trained pets, in need of strict rules or a strong leash, and not as intelligent beings whose attitudes and understandings of living in a global civilization need to change, and whose conduct may need to be controlled by the application of force.

The fundamental policy aims in the National Security Strategy are ambiguous, of no real use to strategists but quite useful to our enemies.  It urges us to live by our values as an example for other nations.  But enemies exploit every flaw in our society to discredit this position, and even point to some of our values as evidence of decadence they find abhorrent. 

The NSS would have us exercise leadership among the family of nations – but enemies assert that our leadership is actually hegemony, the desire to dominate the world, to have other nations act as puppets whose strings are in our hands. 

The NSS asserts the right to act to defend and advance our interests.  But “interests” are fickle things, whose meaning and importance can change as quickly as the weather, and our enemies can twist the meaning in any particular instance to whatever suits their purpose.  Are we defending the world’s energy supply lines?  Or the financial interests of major corporations?  Do we want to protect people against tyranny?  Or open their wallets to our corrupt influences?  It all comes down to how people receive the arguments presented to them.

Reading the NSS with exceeding care, you will have no idea what we are willing to fight for or against, what the conflicts are that we are already engaged in, or why anyone in the world should support us or refuse to support our opponents.  America’s security strategy is apparently built without any policy foundation at all, not as Clausewitz would understand the concept.

The Declaration of Independence provides a superb reference of sound policy making.  Following lengthy efforts to resolve disputes with Great Britain, it proclaimed to the entire world – including the people of Britain and each American colony – the objective Congress had to resolve the conflict, the reasons it chose that objective, and the depth of its resolve to achieve that end.

British policy of the time, by contrast, is an example of poor policy making, ignoring the circumstances and employing force as an end in itself.  Failing to respond to the issues Congress stated were central to the conflict, Britain actually committed even more of the acts the Americans complained of in its efforts to suppress the rebellion, putting even more American towns to the torch and repudiating the right of self-government in the Colonies.

Edmund Burke, at that time a member of Parliament, noted how force was failing to achieve the desired ends:  “We may call the effect of our victory peace, or obedience or what we will, but the war is not ended; the hostile mind continues in full vigor, and it continues in worse form…”[20]  “Not one unattacked village which was originally adverse throughout that vast continent has yet submitted from love or terror…  You spread devastation, but you do not enlarge the sphere of authority.”[21]

As late as World War II, the United States government had a fairly good idea of the need to develop and declare objectives in the war against the Axis Powers.  The result was a series of policy documents, executed at various conferences with our allies, including the Atlantic Charter in 1941, the Cairo Declaration in 1943, the Yalta and Potsdam Declarations in 1945.  These documents proclaimed to the entire world, friend and foe alike, the political demands the United Nations would impose on the defeated Axis states.

As the war ended and the Axis states were occupied, the defeated people accepted the conditions imposed on them.  For them, the war was over, they knew the demands of the victors, and they were willing to accept them without further struggle.

Has the leadership of our government, whether in the executive or legislative branches, done any similar work since the mid-1940’s?  Have they devoted any of their tremendous capacity for study and thought to examining the “circumstances in the context of the whole” to prepare for making policy and providing guidance to strategists, diplomats and soldiers?  Or have they been content to slap labels on entire populations, to ignore what people say and think, to reduce nations to sets of statistics, and to imagine relationships among those creatures of their own imaginations?

History speaks for itself, and the nation wonders how we are able, time and again, to squander the invested sacrifice and devotion of so many citizens who have taken up the call to serve in uniform.  “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” was printed across the cover of a national magazine earlier this year.[22]  Even senior military leaders find that we are losing wars no matter how many battles our combat forces win.[23]

If we are to break the string of losses, to put all the strengths of all the forms of national power to effective use, we need to start to exercise the brains “Nature and Nature’s God” put in our heads, to show a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,”[24] and follow the good guidance Carl von Clausewitz laid out so long ago.  Our nation’s leaders, the crafters of policy, need to get clear in their mind what they intend to achieve – having already examined the circumstances in the context of the whole – before they ask strategists to get it done.

End Notes

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), pg. 579.

[2] Clausewitz, pg. 586.

[3] Clausewitz, pg. 585-6.

[4] Clausewitz, pg. 149.

[5] Clausewitz, pg. 77.

[6] Clausewitz, pg. 585.

[7] Clausewitz, pg. 585, emphasis supplied.

[8] Clausewitz, pg. 90.

[9] Clausewitz, pg. 80.

[10] Clausewitz, pg. 583.

[11] Clausewitz, pg. 592.

[12] Clausewitz, pg. 603.

[13] This analysis neither follows nor contradicts the sovereignty of nation-states based on the Peace of Westphalia (1648).  War and other forms of conflict flow from dynamics and decisions that are independent of law, diplomacy and governmental jurisdiction.

[14] See for example JP 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 22 November 2013, at pg IV-4; US Army FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 15 December 2006, at pp. 3-6 to 3-12.

[15] See note 2, above.

[16] See note 3, above.

[17] Clausewitz, pg. 600.

[18] See Clausewitz at pg. 81.

[19] 2015 National Security Strategy, The White House (February, 2015)

[20] Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, April 3, 1777, in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke,” Vol. II (John Nimmo, ed., London 1887), pg. 194

[21] Burke, pg. 205

[22] The Tragedy of the American Military, James Fallows, The Atlantic magazine, January/February 2015, pp. 72-90

[23] Winning Battles, Losing Wars, LTG. James Dubik, US Army (retired), in ARMY Magazine, December, 2014, pp 16-17.

[24] Declaration of Independence, paragraph 1.


About the Author(s)

LTC Diehl originally enlisted in the Regular Army in 1984.  Prior to retirement, his service included tours in Germany at Field Station Augsburg (1986-1989), in Iraq at Forward Operating Bases Danger and Speicher (2005) and at the Pentagon with the International and Operational Law Division of the Office of the Judge Advocate General and the Operations Directorate of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff G-3/5/7, Headquarters, Department of the Army (2010-2014).


I found the first portion of this article useful. He skillfully used Clausewitz's writings to identify important questions policy makers should consider before employing military force, especially important to answer before marching off to war. However, I found his comments regarding the National Security Strategy to be ill informed. Before I critique some of his ideas, I agree that in many ways in the National Security Strategy has increasingly devolving into political dribble of little substance.

However, the four key national security interests: security, prosperity, international order, and values identified in the NSS are still credible foundations to build a "national" strategy upon. Roy seemed to disagree with listing values because of our adversaries turn them around against us. That is no reason to forfeit who we are as people, or in other words our national character. Furthermore, operating in a way constrained by our values has generally put us in a position of advantage when compared to the USSR, today's Russia, or al-Qaida and now ISIL. I argue that following our values maintains a balance of power in our favor. For example, few people in the world minus dictators desire to fall under Putin's proposed international order.

More importantly, today's NSS is not about winning wars. There was certainly more of that in the Cold War, but today it is more about strategic shaping using all elements of national power to create an environment that provides for our security. That seems appropriate for an unclassified document intended to synergize (to clarify, I did say intended) all elements of national power and to message the global audience on our broader intentions. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) further analyzes the NSS to determine how DOD will support the NSS. There are several subordinate strategies, mostly focused on ensuring we're ready to project military power and shaping the environment. When we actually go to war, we "should" develop strategies that achieve the stated policy ends. Returning to the first part of Roy's article, that is hard to do if the policy objectives are poorly thought out, or are based more on political correctness than realistic ends that advance our interests at an acceptable cost. Still that is not the purpose of the NSS.

Not agreeing or disagreeing with Roy's point about the NSS not specifying what we're willing to fight for. On one hand, some argue that type of ambiguity is a good practice because it creates doubts in the minds of our adversaries on where we will draw a red line and adhere to it. If we say, we will fight to protect the world's energy flows, does that mean we won't fight for something else, thus giving our adversaries the perception of a green light to act? On the other hand, stating in clear terms we will fight for X, Y, and Z communicates intent and supports deterrence. Both arguments have their underlying logic.

Despite some areas of disagreement, I enjoyed the paper and will certainly refer to it again as a reference.


Thu, 09/17/2015 - 4:08pm

Another outstanding article. Homerun number two hit straight out of the ballpark! Again all the politicos and generals should be locked up at Gitmo for a month or two and made to memorize this article like they memorize the Koran!