This article is provided by Kings College London (KCL) Defence Studies Department (DSD). Further details can be found from their online presence, Defence-in-Depth.
At a recent gathering in London, a panel drawn from academia, broadsheet journalism and retired senior military positions offered their observations on the Chilcott report in front of a public audience, large numbers of which were ex-military themselves. While it was interesting to note the differing interpretations of the report depending upon the professional background of each speaker, one particular theme stood out to this attendee. Namely the notion, offered by one of the former senior military officer present, that failure in Iraq was due to a lack of ‘strategy’ on the part of the British Government; an observation which no doubt chimes among many.
The problem, however, is that such an explanation reveals a dangerous misapprehension as to the nature of strategy, and misdirects our proper focus of enquiry when it comes to explaining failure.
Firstly, it obscures the rather salient point that it is entirely possible to fail dismally even if one possesses a strategy. Napoleon had a ‘strategy’. So did Mussolini. So did Argentina’s military junta, prior to its invasion of the Falklands. The list of such examples is endless, and points to the rather obvious fact that a strategy is of rather dubious benefit to the national interest if it is the wrong strategy. It also points to other revealing lines of enquiry; are the ends that the strategy is intended to serve feasible? Are those ends fixed, or are they subject to evolution as events progress? Will those ‘ends’ result in a better peace, or a worse state of affairs? Can those ‘ends’ even exist in some cases without a clear understanding of what can feasibly be achieved (Syria 2011-2017, Balkans 1992-1995)? Can the policy which one’s strategy serves be achieved with the resources at hand? Is one’s strategy one’s own, or is one at the mercy of more powerful allies? And is strategy even possible, or are the dynamics that affect the control and direction of war so contingent upon random chance and matters beyond our grasp that success is as much a matter of luck as judgement?
These are some of the problems attendant to an explanation that ‘strategy’ is the answer to anything. Once one gets past the notion of whether the concept is even feasible as an instrument of political/military will, one is still confronted by the fact that strategy is not an independent variable. It is an entirely dependent one, at the mercy of innumerable conflicting forces. But at heart there remains the fundamental problem: a strategy can only be as effective as the objective that it serves. If, as in Iraq, the objective was to instantaneously transform that particular fascist sectarian regime into a unitary state operating under the guidance of entirely unfamiliar democratic political traditions then the problem is not difficult to identify. Insofar that it was a problem to which ‘strategy’ was never the answer.
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