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Obama wins debate on strategy

Nick Fickling

In about 400 B.C., the great Chinese general and military theorist Sun Tzu opined: “Strategy without tactics ” the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy ” the noise before defeat”.

He might have added: “lose track of your original goal and, no matter what your strategy or tactics are, you are lost.”

What do all these words that were tossed about in the first presidential debate actually mean? Well, goals are broad statements of intent, strategies are long-term plans of action to achieve the goals, and tactics are short-term measures and actions, to keep strategies on track.

In October 2006, President Bush reviewed Iraq strategy with top commanders and national security advisers and declared: “Our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging. Our goal is victory, what is changing are the tactics we use to achieve that goal.”

Bush, with his Harvard MBA, surely recalls that, to be achieved, goals must be clear, measurable, realistic, on a timeline and with somebody accountable. His 2006 mention of “victory” is not really a goal because he has never defined victory, said how we would know when we are there, or given a timeline.

On Sept. 20 2001, in his inspirational Sept. 11 “War on Terror” speech, Bush used the sentence: “We will direct every resource at our command ” every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence and every necessary weapon of war ” to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.” The goals that were then crafted, “to counter terrorist threats, prevent terrorist acts, and curb the influence of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda,” are today either being achieved in Iraq, or diverted from there, depending on your political viewpoint.

One of the key attributes of a leader, particularly in time of war, is remaining focused on the goal and continually questioning strategies. Are they helping, or are they diverting focus and resources elsewhere?

This brings me to Sen. McCain’s debate comment on the 2007 Iraq surge:

“I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

This accusation surprised me for it is McCain who does not appear to understand that the surge is a mere tactic, not the grand strategy he seems to think it is. The Bush/McCain “victory in Iraq” is one of their strategies, supposedly aimed at helping them achieve their goal of winning their War on Terror; the surge is a tactic.

Obama, however, while acknowledging that the surge in Iraq “has been more successful than anyone could have imagined,” does understand that it is a mere tactic to give time for political progress. That is why he added in his O’Reilly interview that Iraq has not had enough “political reconciliation” and that Iraqis have still not taken responsibility for their country. The surge may have worked tactically, but unfortunately there has been little by way of strategic progress.

What is going on here? The community organizer gets it, and understands the difference between strategy and tactics, but the retired military hero doesn’t. Maybe the blusterer, who is convinced he understands and knows what he is talking about, is more dangerous as a leader than the intelligent thinker, who knows he needs to ask for advice, listen, understand, and then question before deciding.

I wonder what Sun Tzu would say?

Nick Fickling is retired from the British military and lives in the Vail Valley. E-mail him at fickling@vail.net or editor@vailtrail.com.


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