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Strategy, National Interests, and Means to an End

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen D. Sklenka. | September 2007

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ABSTRACT

This paper focuses on the interrelationship among national interests, stated ends, means to achieve those ends, and the strategies required to tie all of them together into a cohesive and effective vision for the commitment of U.S. forces. The introduction addresses the current U.S. debate regarding proposed actions in the Iraq War and postulates that the lack of true strategic discussion, particularly by our national leadership who instead prefer to focus on far less appropriate discussions such as tactics and techniques, inhibits the development of a comprehensive and effective overarching vision and ultimately is to blame for the setbacks that the U.S.-led coalition has experienced in Iraq. This lack of strategic foresight, however, is not surprising and has become endemic to American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The fact that so much of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy involves interventions merely exacerbates the difficulties a lack of strategic foresight engenders. The U.S. inability?or unwillingness?to connect strategic ends and appropriate means to accomplish clearly defined goals has occurred so often over the past 15 years that one could make a credible argument that it has become a disturbing and pervasive characteristic of the modern American way of war.

The first section briefly explains the theoretical concepts behind the development of ends, means, and strategy. Understanding the manner in which ends, means, and strategy relate to one another is crucial toward developing a national vision, particularly when determining whether an intervention of U.S. military forces may or may not be mandated.

Once the basic theoretical construct is explained, that design is placed against four recent interventional actions in which the United States has participated: Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, and Iraq. In each of these cases, an examination of the declared stated ends is conducted, an assessment of the means dedicated to achieving those ends is made, and a look at the overall strategy tying those ends and means together is performed.

The paper concludes by asserting that the strategic failures that occurred within the four recent interventions are not coincidental. Rather, they represent predictable outcomes that are to be expected when strategic vision is lacking. Clear, succinct, and obtainable ends must be articulated by national leadership prior to the commitment of force to ensure that force is actually representative of appropriate and corresponding means to achieve those ends. Moreover, only a unified strategic design can ensure that the means are properly employed and that the ends remain focused?especially when the environment changes in such a way as to engender a necessary adjustment to those ends that require a commensurate adjustment in dedicated means as well.

Accordingly, the principal lesson to be learned is that when the United States commits its military forces in support of interventions, success can only be achieved if clear ends are identified, appropriate means are leveraged against those stated ends, and a coherent strategy is developed to coordinate the ends and means. While such a statement can be dismissed as common sense, our recent history clearly demonstrates that such is certainly not the case.

INTRODUCTION

To know in war how to recognize an opportunity and seize it is better than anything else.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War2

The United States is currently in the midst of a pivotal struggle. Numerous terms have been proffered to describe this conflict; The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the Long War, the Struggle against Islamic Extremism, and the Fight against Global Jihadism are among the most popular appellations. Within this struggle, the conflict taking place in Iraq has undeniably assumed center stage. Whether one believes Iraq to be the central front in this global battle or one believes that the present situation arose out of U.S. actions that have created a self-fulfilling prophecy is immaterial. The point is that the United States is heavily engaged in that nation and will undoubtedly remain active there for some time to come. Accordingly, success is predicated upon the development of a sound, comprehensive, and resourced strategy. However, the development of that strategy has proven to be immensely challenging. Given America?s recent history with interventions, this quandary is not surprising; our nation routinely has had difficulty connecting desired ends to the necessary means required to achieve those ends with the result being the execution of uncoordinated and unfocused strategies.

There is an old adage that is especially apt when discussing the multitude of strategic options regarding Iraq: If you do not know where you are going, then any road will get you there. The truth in that adage becomes more apparent as numerous proposals regarding ?the best? course of action for the United States to take in Iraq continue to be advocated and deliberated. The past few months in particular have witnessed a vociferous debate regarding the subject of strategic direction. Choruses of ?Stay the Course? and ?Cut and Run? monopolized virtually every foreign policy discussion prior to the November 2006 congressional elections. Some have argued since the first day of the war that insufficient numbers of forces have been employed in Iraq; increasing troop strength is seen by many who hold this view as a requirement if a favorable solution is to be achieved. Many counter that position by claiming that there simply are not sufficient forces available within the U.S. inventory to add for an extended period in Iraq. Meanwhile, others passionately espouse the belief that the only viable course of action remaining for the United States is a withdrawal of our forces from the battle zone. Proponents of this plan are convinced that our forces are caught in the middle of a situation that has deteriorated beyond the ability of our military to fix. Then there are the ?middle? options. The most oft-cited alternatives within this category include a call for the strategic redeployment of forces to areas outside Iraq but within regional proximity, as well as a plan to forge a federatedpartition of Iraq?the so-called ?Biden-Gelb Plan? or variations thereof.

However, lost amid the din of these highly charged debates and arguments is perhaps the most fundamental element of strategy itself. The one question that requires an answer in order to make the strategic debate relevant essentially has not been asked: What is the U.S. desired end state in Iraq? In other words, what are the U.S. political goals for Iraq? In an attempt to answer this question last year, the White House published the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (NSVI), and since publication, no other official documents have countermanded the goals stated in that document. Specifically, the NSVI identified three principal objectives:

  • Short Term: Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions, and standing up security forces.
  • Medium Term: Iraq is in the lead defeating terrorists and providing its own security with a fully constitutional government in place and is on its way to achieving its economic potential.
  • Longer Term: Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.3

More than a year later, the fundamental question that requires answering is whether or not these ends are still valid. Is it still in the U.S. best interests to commit manpower, treasure, and resources toward the attainment of these specific objectives? Unfortunately, such questions have been overlooked or at least obscured as the nation plods along in search of a strategy that will enable American forces to ultimately be extricated from Iraq.

While a national debate regarding strategic direction is certainly required?and long overdue?such a debate cannot really exist without first conducting serious discussions regarding the desired end state vis-à-vis Iraq. All talk of strategic options prior to the determination of political goals is not only premature; it is counterproductive. Any meaningful debate of strategy is essentially amorphous since there is nothing of substance on which it can adequately focus. Current discussions regarding proposed strategic directions are only appropriate if the political aims as identified in the White House?s NSVI remain unchanged. However, discussions regarding the continued viability of those objectives have been completely overshadowed by discourse that has focused almost exclusively on strategy.

Focusing the discussion principally on strategy metaphorically puts the cart before the horse. Strategy without an aiming point represented by a defined end state is doomed to drift aimlessly. Establishing a clearly defined set of political goals up front, though, enables the formulation of an executable strategy and the identification of requisite means designed to support that strategy. Success hinges on that critical first step?determination of the end state. Only after that determination is accomplished can a meaningful strategy and the allocation of appropriate resources to achieve that strategy occur. The process conceptually is rather simple?ends must first be determined, a strategy is then developed, and finally, appropriate means to conduct that strategy to achieve the desired ends are identified and allocated. Iraq is proving, however, that theory and execution often are not cooperative partners, as the stated ends have not necessarily corresponded to the actual means committed. That ends-means mismatch has in turn posed predictable challenges to the development of a coherent strategy vis-à-vis Iraq. This situation should not be a surprise, though, because recent U.S. history provides several examples where ends-means mismatches have become alarmingly pervasive. The U.S. inability?or unwillingness?to connect strategic ends and appropriate means to accomplish those ends has occurred so often over the past 15 years that one could make a credible argument that it has become a disturbing and pervasive characteristic of the modern American way of war. Examining specific cases from the previous decade as well as Operation IRAQI FREEDOM validates this point, but first, a review of the relationship among ends, means, and overall strategy is in order.

CONCLUSION

To the Judge of Right and Wrong with Whom fulfillment lies our purpose and our power belong, our faith and Sacrifice
Rudyard Kipling The Choice69

A nation sends a significant signal to the rest of the international community when it decides to commit interventional forces. Outside of asserting a requirement to defend the homeland, such an action expresses an undeniable intent that a nation is willing to sacrifice blood and treasure for the attainment of specified ends. Accordingly, clear, succinct, and obtainable ends must be articulated by national leadership prior to the commitment of force to ensure that force is actually representative of appropriate and corresponding means to achieve those ends. Moreover, only a unified strategic design can ensure that the means are properly employed and that the ends remain focused?especially when the environment changes in such a way as to engender a necessary adjustment to those ends that require a commensurate adjustment in dedicated means as well.

Sound strategic vision enables policymakers to determine the comparative value of a specific commitment as weighed against other national interests. While individual actions and the circumstances of their initiation alter from administration to administration, the principal ethos of a nation remains relatively constant and thus provides strategic leadership with a convenient guide from which to operate. Adhering to core principles enables policymakers to craft correspondingly cognizant strategies representative of the nation?s values. While this is especially true of democracies, nations practicing that form of government face a strange paradox when it comes to defining national interests and strategic vision. On the one hand, they represent the most ideal governments to construct a sensible and even inspiring strategic vision, yet on the other hand, the unique characteristics inherent to their system deliberately create significant obstacles toward the development of that vision.

In other words, the fundamental nature of democracies presents a formidable challenge to the nurturing of strategic vision among its leadership. National leadership operates within the context of short-term election cycles, and strategic vision by definition requires a long-term approach. Those seeking reelection face a daunting task in convincing constituents to commit to a series of potentially enduring sacrifices in the name of a leader?s strategic vision, particularly when the tangible benefits of those sacrifices may not be immediately realized. Accordingly, political leadership tends to seek ?quick wins? to shore up support for the longer term victories. In taking such an approach, though, the short-term ?wins? may actually prove counterproductive to the long-term victory. A credible argument can be made that the 1994 U.S. venture fits that description, since virtually all economic growth and development initiated during that intervention appears to have either halted or even regressed. One can make similar cases when addressing the after effects of the previous decade?s U.S. action in Somalia and, to a lesser extent, in the Balkans as well. Enduring commitment was required to achieve the respective stated ends in those places, but when that level of commitment was deemed to be politically unpalatable, the ends were adjusted to accommodate a more acceptable and reduced commitment (i.e., means), earning ?wins? that ultimately failed to adequately address the base issues that caused the situations in the first place. Long-term strategic vision regarding Haiti, the Balkans, and Somalia was sacrificed for the sake of domestic politics, and the situation in Iraq teeters on the edge of a similar fate as of this writing. Such a situation, however, certainly is not unique to those regions. Rather, that is simply reflective of the reality inherent in operating within a democracy. Thus, the real challenge to democracies is determining a method by which long-term strategic vision supported by a genuine commitment of requisite resources required to achieve that vision is not only encouraged but routine.

ENDNOTES

2. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, ed., trans., and with commentary by Christopher Lynch, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 158.

3. National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, Washington, DC: National Security Council, November, 2005, pp. 1-2.

69.Rudyard Kipling, ?The Quest,? Rudyard Kipling?s Verse: Definitive Edition, Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1940, p. 520.