Strategy Is Not Enough
Roy M. Diehl
There is now, and long has been, a frequent degree of unease in how we deal with conflict. These days we may focus our attention on the current state of what used to be called the “Global War on Terror,” or security in Eastern Europe, or tensions in the South China Sea. Not that long ago we worried about failed states in Africa and narco-terrorism, before that it was the Cold War and the transition from the era of European colonialism.
Particularly since 1981, when Colonel Harry Summers wrote an influential analysis of the Vietnam war, it has become common to look at how we deal with conflict in terms of strategy. If there are difficulties in Iraq, the problem is with the strategy we are using. If Putin’s Russia is causing trouble, we look at the strategy he is employing and what strategy we should employ in response. If we are nervous about how China is acting as an emerging world power, we develop strategies for containment and confrontation.
However, strategy cannot stand on its own. Strategy exists to support a purpose, its success or failure measured against that purpose. This was the foundation of the theory of war written by Carl von Clausewitz which Colonel Summers used as the basis for his analysis.
The purpose of strategy is always to be found in what Clausewitz called “policy.” “War,” he wrote, “is an act of policy.” “Politics… is the womb in which war develops.” “War is not merely an act of policy,” he famously stated, “but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on by other means… The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”
Clausewitz called policy the “guiding intelligence” of war: “No major proposal required for war can be worked out in ignorance of political factors.” To do so would be the same as to design a structure without knowledge of its foundation, regard to its function or concern for its purpose.
Clausewitz was rather clear about the foundations strategy must be built on. Even for the secondary matter of resourcing, he wrote, “we 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.”
If you read through the most important documents our nation’s senior leaders maintain on the safety and security of the nation, such as the National Security Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the National Military Strategy, you will need to have a vivid imagination to see anything in anything resembling the kind of guidance Clausewitz prescribed.
What is the nature of the conflict we are involved in with anyone? What are their political aims? What are ours? What are their strengths? Their situation? Their character and abilities? How strong are their motives? What price are they willing to pay? What harm are they willing to inflict?
What do our “adversaries” want that we find intolerable? What do we want that they are so opposed to that they may be willing to employ force and violence, to cause misery and privation, to inflict death and destruction, in order to get their way? What are we willing to fight for? Or against?
These are questions of policy, the answers to which are essential to understand the foundations any strategy must rest on.
To quote Clausewitz, “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” If our government does not give us clear guidance on the “political object” that is our goal, then the result must always be “means… considered in isolation from their purpose.”
Without proper guidance on the nature, aims and importance of the conflict, strategists are working blind. They can either design operations to deal with the military fight as they see it – with only their own instinct to help them find an acceptable political end state – or fall back on an “exit” strategy to execute at the point where their government loses interest and decides to abandon the whole affair.
And that is exactly what has happened to us repeatedly for generations. We prevail when the aim of the fight is simple and the outcome absolute: remove Noriega, free Grenada, liberate Kuwait.
But when the conflict is complex or the opposition is durable, we get frustrated and eventually gather up our things, mourn our losses and squabble among ourselves over who to blame for getting us into the mess in the first place. Vietnam. Beirut. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan.
We need to understand that war is not about strategies, the operational art or logistics capacities. War is not about manpower, weapons systems or even victory on the battlefield – as a North Vietnamese colonel famously informed Colonel Summers in April, 1975. Strategies not rooted in a purpose will always be at great risk of failure.
Clausewitz wrote, “… [W]ar cannot be divorced from political life, and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.”
Americans in uniform have time and again been left fighting wars that have decayed into “something pointless and devoid of sense.” If our efforts in the future are to make sense and have a point, we must look to a day when our government gives us the kind of policy guidance we need to do our job.
 Harry G. Summer, Jr., On Strategy: a critical analysis of the Vietnam War. (Novarto, California: Presidio Press, 1982)
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), see p. 610.
 Clausewitz, On War, p. 87.
 Ibid, p. 149.
 Ibid, p. 87.
 Ibid, p. 607.
 Ibid, p. 608.
 Ibid, p. 586.
 2015 National Security Strategy, The White House (February, 2015)
 Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, Department of Defense (March, 2014)
 The National Military Strategy of the United States 2015, Joint Chiefs of Staff (June, 2015)
 Clausewitz, On War, p. 87.
 Summers, On Strategy, p. 1.
 Clausewitz, On War, p. 605.