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Earl Tilford / September 4, 2014

Strategy 101: A Primer for Obama

In August 1961, while the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall to plunge the Cold War into the deep freeze, President John F. Kennedy ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to devise a nuclear-first strike plan. The Strategic Air Command responded with a plan involving 55 B-52’s hitting 80 Soviet bomber and missile bases and eliminating an estimated 90 percent of the Soviet’s nuclear capability. Since Russian bomber and rocket bases were located in isolated areas, civilian and military casualties, assessed at around one million, were thought low enough when compared to the more than 20 million deaths Russia suffered in World War II. Kennedy considered, but rejected the option. Nevertheless, the episode reflected bold thinking at both the grand and operational levels of strategy.

Simply put, strategy is a plan to achieve an objective. Speaking at the White House recently, President Obama stated that his administration had no plan to deal with the jihadist threat in Syria. U.S. force against ISIS in Iraq has, so far, involved disparate precision air strikes meant to curb the ISIS jihadists advancing on Iraqi and Kurdish forces. This is clearly combat at the tactical rather than the strategic level of war.

There are two separate, but related, levels of strategy. The highest, grand strategy lies within the president’s purview. The White House defines national policy, prompting a grand strategy that the military fulfills with an operational strategy devised to correspond to national strategic objectives. In short, President Obama must clearly state the policy objective so the Pentagon can respond with an effective strategy to employ its forces at the operational level of war.

Grand strategy reflects national policy objectives and must correctly identify the nature of the threat. This is not easy. A half century ago, the United States lost the war in Vietnam because the White House failed to recognize the true nature of the conflict: The United States was at war with a determined enemy whose multi-layered strategy included destroying the South Vietnamese army and government with the goal to unite Vietnam under a single communist system while simultaneously compelling the U.S. to withdraw through a war of attrition focused on inflicting enough pain to frustrate, and eventually break, American will. A viable grand strategy clearly identifies the enemy and specifies a definitive end state. Take a cue from General Douglas MacArthur, “In war there is no substitute for victory.”

Grand strategy considers resources. Does the U.S. military have the capabilities needed to deal effectively with the threat posed by the ISIS?  While the short answer is “yes,” the world poses a wide range of threats: Russian aggression in Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear programs, Syria, new threats from North Korea, and an increasingly truculent and regionally hegemonic China.

National will is essential. After 13 years of war do the American people have the will to properly take on ISIS? President Obama must look beyond the far left political base’s disdain for using military force and make the case to the American people that it is in the national security interest of the United States to move decisively against this threat. He has to believe it to sell it.

Operational strategy is the purview of military leaders who know what their forces can do. It is the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s job to inform the president concerning what resources are available and how a major recommitment to the Middle East will affect readiness in the larger scheme of international security. It is likely that a range of plans for dealing with ISIS are ready for approval by the president.

Limiting the bombing of ISIS to Iraq is a tactical approach to a strategic threat. The center of gravity, that hub from which all else emanates, is in Syria and it must be struck a decisive blow. Blasting trucks, tanks and artillery pieces in Iraq is like whacking at the serpent’s tail when the head is in Syria. Otherwise, the shadow boxing will continue, and more lives will be at risk, as ISIS advances.

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