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Blogger's Roundtable with Brigadier General Ed Cardon

Politics and Strategy

Thomas P. Barnett, the author of The Pentagon's New Map, has weighed in on Afghanistan

You might have expected a strategic piece, but instead Barnett is thinking politically.  I think often we believe that strategists who talk about the politics are in a sense lowering themselves into the mud, because politics is dirty and strategy is noble:  politics is for politicians, and strategy is for warriors.

We have to remember that "war is politics by other means," per Clausewitz.  Strategy follows the politics:  it is nothing other than the vehicle by which the armies try to bring about what the politics will.  Right now, the fight isn't really about the strategy to be used to achieve a clear political decision.  The fight is at the political level.

The military tries its hardest to stay out of that level of decision-making, out of its reverence for the principle of civilian control of the military.  Right now, it's getting 'drug upwards' into politics because the strategic recommendations have influenced the political debate:

[I]f the administration doesn't go along with the recommendations of its handpicked commander (and there were signs this afternoon that it was leaning away from the McChrystal plan and back toward Biden's strategy), then it will have effectively repudiated McChrystal's command with a highly publicized vote of no confidence. By extension, the White House will have completed its marginalization of McChrystal's boss, General David Petraeus.

My guess would be that -- Barnett's suggestions aside -- the President's "politically savvy" advisors aren't aiming at marginalizing General Petraeus in order to forestall a 2012 run.  What they're doing is trying to sort out the policy.  The entanglement between politics and strategy is no more pleasant to the soldiers than it is pleasant to the politicians (who keep telling the military to stay out of their business; which the military, contrary to reports, is devoutly trying to do). 

The only resolution can be when the President decides on a clear policy.  From that point forward, strategy is the clean arena we would all like it to be.  Until then, it would be good to remember that the entangling of strategy and politics is not the result of generals maneuvering against politicians, or politicians seeking to undermine generals.  

The entangling is simply the unavoidable result of the fact that these are two parts of the same thing:  politics is the origin of war, and war is a subset of politics.