Strength and Constancy: It’s a Strategy

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2005

In conjunction with President George W. Bush’s public-diplomacy offensive to regain domestic support for the war effort, the National Security Council has now published a document entitled “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” While the usual suspects have denounced it as more of the same, the fact is that it is a sound effort to outline what is necessary to achieve our goals in Iraq.

Properly understood, strategy refers to a plan for applying scarce means to achieve the nation’s goals. Without a strategic framework for setting priorities and guiding the development and employment of the instruments of national power, it is difficult to evaluate proposed actions to ensure the nation’s security and prosperity. Strategy making and implementation are dynamic processes, changing as the factors that influence the strategy change. Potential mismatches between ends and means create risks. If the risks resulting from an ends-means mismatch cannot be managed, ends must be reevaluated and scaled back, means must be increased, or the strategy must be adjusted.

In general, strategy serves three purposes. First, strategy relates ends, the goals of policy (interests and objectives) to the limited resources available to achieve them against an adversary who actively opposes the achievement of the ends.

Second, strategy contributes to the clarification of the ends of policy by helping establish priorities in light of constrained resources. Without establishing priorities among competing ends, all interests and all threats will appear equal. In the absence of strategy, planners will find themselves in the situation described by Frederick the Great: “He who attempts to defend too much defends nothing.” Finally, strategy conceptualizes resources as means in support of policy. Resources are not means until strategy provides some understanding of how they will be organized and employed.

Strategy can be envisioned as the answers to a series of interrelated questions:

  • What conditions do we wish to prevail in the area of interest to us?
  • What steps do we need to take in order to achieve those conditions, i.e., what plan of action is most likely to bring about the desired conditions?
  • What combination of the instruments of power best supports the chosen strategic alternative?
  • What are the opportunity costs and risks associated with the preferred strategic alternative?

If we apply these various criteria to the Bush Iraq strategy, it comes out looking pretty good.

The Successes Continue

The document clearly describes victory as the desired outcome for Iraq. This would seem self-evident but the document recognizes that the goal will be achieved in stages. In the short term, success is defined as “making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions, and standing up security forces.” By this measurement, our enterprise in Iraq has been successful.

Success in the “medium term” will be achieved when Iraq has a fully constitutional government in place, has taken the lead in the war against the terrorists and is providing its own security, and is on its way to achieving its economic potential. The elections in two weeks will constitute an important milestone in achieving victory in the medium term.

Final victory in Iraq will have been achieved when the country “is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.” This is a big order and much has to happen to reach this goal—but the report makes clear what we aim to do.

“Victory in Iraq” points out that success in Iraq is a vital U.S. interest. “Iraq is the central front in the global war on terror. Failure in Iraq will embolden terrorists and expand their reach; success in Iraq will deal them a decisive and crippling blow.” But U.S. interests extend beyond Iraq to the greater Middle East as a whole.

All too often, strategies do a fine job of describing the goal but don’t address the plan to achieve the goals. But this is the essence of strategy: How do we apply scarce resources in the most effective way to bring about our desired end? If the president’s Iraq strategy left this out, it would be a serious omission. But this is not the case. The document lays out three interconnected tracks that describe the “how” of the U.S. approach in Iraq. These tracks incorporate “eight pillars,” or strategic objectives:

  • Defeat the Terrorists and Neutralize the Insurgency
  • Transition Iraq to Security Self-Reliance
  • Help Iraqis Form a National Compact for Democratic Government
  • Help Iraq Build Government Capacity and Provide Essential Services
  • Help Iraq Strengthen its Economy
  • Help Iraq Strengthen the Rule of Law and Promote Civil Rights
  • Increase International Support for Iraq
  • Strengthen Public Understanding of Coalition Efforts and Public Isolation of the Insurgents

As sophisticated observers are always quick to point out, insurgencies are never won by military means alone. There must be a political track leading to a stable government. To bring about this outcome, the document calls for isolating the real enemy elements by driving a wedge between them and those who can be won over to the political process. The second component of the political track is to engage those outside the political process by inviting them to participate in the governing process if they are willing to turn away from violence Finally, the political track calls for building stable, pluralistic, and effective national institutions capable of protecting the interests of all Iraqis, enabling Iraq to be fully integrated into the international community.

But while military means are not sufficient to defeat an insurgency, they are nonetheless necessary. The security track focuses on defeating the terrorists while building up Iraqi forces. The security track also has three components: taking offensive action to clear areas of enemy control, killing and capturing enemy fighters and denying them safe-haven; holding areas that have been wrested from enemy control and using Iraqi security forces to extend the writ of the Iraqi government; and most critically, building up these security forces and improving “the capacity of local institutions to deliver services, advance the rule of law, and nurture civil society.”

The final track of the strategy is economic. The elements of this track are to help the Iraqi government: restore Iraq’s infrastructure enabling it to meet increasing demand and the needs of a growing economy; reform an Iraqi economy to make it self-sustaining; and build the capacity of “Iraqi institutions to maintain infrastructure, rejoin the international economic community, and improve the general welfare of all Iraqis.”

This is a clear strategic roadmap, which establishes the desired outcome and outlines the steps necessary to achieve it. All the elements are mutually reinforcing. And the document includes an appendix that provides clear metrics for evaluating progress.

Perhaps most important, the strategy is flexible and adaptable, recognizing that our enemy in Iraq is sophisticated. War is, after all, still a struggle between two active wills, each trying to achieve its goals by subduing the other. It recognizes that although we have achieved most of our short-term and many of or medium-term goals, the kind of victory that means a favorable peace will take time. The strategy cannot be linked to a predetermined schedule. It depends on conditions on the ground. “No war has ever been won on a timetable and neither will this one. But lack of a timetable does not mean our posture in Iraq (both military and civilian) will remain static over time. As conditions change, our posture will change.”

The document makes clear the risks of failure. If the United States does not prevail in Iraq, it “would become a safe haven from which terrorists could plan attacks against America, American interests abroad, and our allies.” In addition, “Middle East reformers would never again fully trust American assurances of support for democracy and human rights in the region.” The resulting “tribal and sectarian chaos would have major consequences for American security and interests in the region.” Accordingly, says the document, losing is not an option.

But the risks associated with following the administration’s strategic roadmap are real as well. The specter of civil war is always present, as well as the possibility that the terrorists will reemerge once the United States leaves: “Defeating the multi-headed enemy in Iraq—and ensuring that it cannot threaten Iraq’s democratic gains once we leave—requires persistent effort across many fronts.”

No Viable Alternatives

The reaction of the Democrats to “Victory in Iraq” has been predictable and is reminiscent of the response to Ronald Reagan’s first “National Security Strategy” when it was published in 1987. All during his presidency, Reagan’s critics constantly accused him of having no strategy except to spend more money on defense. They were blind to the fact that the main objective of Reagan’s strategy was to exploit the Soviet “center of gravity,” the weakness of communist economic organization.

Reagan’s “National Security Strategy” merely placed on paper what astute observers could ascertain on the basis of actions alone: that a critical element of Reagan’s grand strategy was “to force the Soviet Union to bear the brunt of its domestic economic shortcomings in order to discourage excessive Soviet military expenditures and global adventurism.” It did so by exploiting the economic mismatch between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: While the U.S. was spending a maximum of 6.3 percent of a large and growing gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, the Soviets were spending a considerably larger portion of a much smaller GDP on security. The fact was that the United States could afford an arms race; the Soviet Union could not.

Bush’s critics are as wrong today as Reagan’s were two decades ago. Long before this document was published, the Coalition was pursuing the three-track strategy described in “Victory in Iraq.” The process began a year ago with the capture of Fallujah. Since then, Coalition forces have concentrated on interdicting the “ratlines” that permitted the insurgents to infiltrate into the heart of Iraq from the Syrian border. As Iraqi forces have improved, Coalition forces have not only been able to clear key regions, killing and capturing terrorists during the operations, but to apply force simultaneously, making it difficult for the enemy fighters to slip away to other locations. And because there are more Iraqi units able to pull their weight, Coalition forces are increasingly able to hold territory that the enemy once controlled.

Progress has not been constant, of course, because plans rarely work out the way they are supposed to. I hope readers will forgive me for once more reminding them of the observation by Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian general staff during the wars of German unification, that “no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. Only the layman thinks that he can see in the course of the campaign the consequent execution of the original idea with all the details thought out in advance and adhered to until the very end.”

His observations apply in spades to Iraq. The commander, wrote Moltke, must keep his objective in mind, “undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.” In my estimation, the Bush administration and the commanders on the ground have done a reasonably good job of keeping the objective of the war in mind while “[evaluating] the facts, [clarifying] the unknown, [making] decisions rapidly, and then… [carrying] them out with strength and constancy.” This is what has permitted the Coalition to wrest the initiative from the insurgents over the last year.

By all means, if the president’s critics have a better strategy, let them present it. Of course, the dominant Copperhead faction of the Democratic Party has nothing to offer but the demand that we pull out. Meanwhile, those with presidential aspirations try to have it both ways, criticizing the president’s approach but trying to appear serious about national security by not taking the Murtha-Pelosi road. But they don’t provide much of an alternative either—let’s call it “Copperhead lite.” For instance John Kerry calls for reducing U.S. forces in Iraq. But cutting U.S. combat power in Iraq would permit the enemy to recover the initiative that the Coalition seized last year in Fallujah. In fact, neither the Copperhead nor Copperhead lite plans for Iraq constitute serious strategic alternatives to the president’s strategy. They would serve only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.