“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama told reporters during a White House news briefing. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
– September 4, 2014 remark on fighting ISIS (from CNN)
President Obama’s admission last Fall that we don’t have a strategy to defeat ISIS (now IS) may be the most honest statement he has made during his presidency. It may also mark the point where other world leaders determined America slipped from it’s world super power status, relegated to something akin to Whitney Houston trying to restart her sidelined singing career after descending into a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. The crowds still showed up when she sang, but often many walked out during her performances and the reviews were brutally negative. Being a Whitney Houston fan, I remained ever hopeful that she would be able to beat the drug addiction and return to her halcyon days of glory, when she gracefully walked on stage, head held high. Sadly, sometimes the sins of the parents do pass on to the children, as in the tragic case of Bobbi Kristina growing up with parents heavily into drugs. America is at the point where the crowds still show up when the President of the United States speaks, but few walk away awed by the performance these days.
With Barack Obama holding the reins we need to seriously worry that the horse has been put out to pasture and the cart disassembled for scrap lumber recycling, such is the state of American national security strategy. So let’s take a little strategic-thinking horse and buggy ride through the vastly complex modern geopolitical sphere, hold on tight though, because libertybelle is holding these reins:-)
Let’s set aside the Obama administration’s complete and total cluelessness on foreign policy, grand strategy, history (particularly military history), geography, economics and people (cultures). This post is about my personal big picture strategic learning curve, which I’ll call “libertybelle learns the rules of the game”. Long ago, in high school actually, I joined a club that met after school to play a board game called “Diplomacy“, where the players take on the mantle of head of state and commander of the armed forces of their respective country. Players must form alliances and dupe other players to achieve their strategic objectives on the game board, which is a map of the pre-WWI world. Being the only girl in this club, I tried to be friends with everyone and much to my dismay, I learned very quickly that the boys lied a lot to me, deliberately working together to defeat me quickly. My feelings got crushed, because I didn’t want to lie and collude against other players and I didn’t understand why we all couldn’t just sit down and talk and reach a sensible solution. Men like to fight, that’s what I took away from this game, but this game did pique my interest in grand strategy.
My parents, who I’ve mentioned many times on my blog , were hard-working, simple living country folks, of German ancestry. We lived on the edge of a rural village in northeast PA, surrounded by fields and picturesque forests. Most folks there, like my father’s entire family, could claim pre-Revolutionary War arrival to PA. One of my direct ancestors was tasked with forming a militia of 82 local men in 1774 and becoming a Captain, leading them and later joining the Continental Army, with some local members dying at Long Island. My father, whom we referred to as Pop, built roads for most of his adult life and he loved to pour over blueprints and road maps, a skill he insisted everyone should acquire. Knowing the lay of the land where you plan to operate is crucial to mission success. A huge part of knowing the lay of the land is knowing the people who reside there and here again, my Pop’s friendly, outgoing, generous personality served as a excellent role model. He talked to everyone and more importantly, he listened to people. Without open, honest dialogue among world leaders, we remain forever locked down in an endless cycle of hostility and distrust. Don’t buy into parsing political claptrap about ‘leading from behind”. Leadership is first and foremost about your character – so be honest, be forthright, but be humble and above all else listen to other people. My Pop believed that if you give your word, you keep your word and I believe this too.
There’s no one course at college to take or one particular book to read on big picture strategic thinking that will turn you into a strategic thinker. Here’s what I have learned from studying military strategy for almost 40 years (yes from my teens) – strategic thinking is a continual learning process, where you need to keep studying more history, keep reading the news, learn as much as you can about politics around the world, read about cultures (both ancient and modern), but above all else remain open to having all your preconceived “definitives” being ground into dust by new information. New information must lead to a careful review and re-analysis of your current strategic planning. Rigid political ideologues like President Obama or Hillary Clinton, rely on “experts” to spoon feed them “definitives’ on the lay of the land and sadly, the “experts” upon whom they rely appear to have dual loyalties, as in Hillary’s MB- connected aide, Huma Abedin or the circle of Muslim Brotherhood brothers, President Obama invites to the White House, while ignoring the advice coming from his top generals. Hillary Clinton, too, has a disdain for the military.
Many people and many books shaped my strategic learning and even now I remain an amateur. I had a high school German and Russian teacher, who loved US Army film footage and he surely had an amazing collection, which he loved to explain in detail. I wrote about him long ago in my 2013 post, “Multiculturalism My Way”. I was writing about foreign aid, but my assessment holds true for this long war we’ve waged pursuing our Islamic democracy project too:
“Over the years I’ve watched this alarming trend of our American efforts in the world to fall flat, despite our best intentions. As we fixated on “multiculturalism”, we seemed more and more tone deaf about other cultures or ran off organizing aid efforts that didn’t reach those they were intended for or didn’t fit the needs of those we wanted to help. Much of this I attribute to relying on shoddy “experts” in academia, who spend most of their time projecting their radical politics on their judgments and assessments of what’s going on in the world. Repeatedly I saw TV reports or read accounts about American efforts at helping in the world, both governmental and private, ending up unwanted, unneeded, or unable to reach the hands in need, due to failing to understand the basic ground truth of the situation we were dealing with. We often short-shrift considerations of corruption and civil strife, which dramatically impede our effort, yet we rush to get rape or grief counselors on the ground. In the process we often seem to throw away opportunities and much needed basic aid that could meet basic survival needs.”
I greatly admire military leadership and one of my prize possessions is my copy of General Marshall’s Report: “The Winning of the War in Europe and the Pacific”, I acquired in my teens. Pop liked to take us on rides on weekends to look at all sorts of stuff. One particular weekend, my Mom and I went along with Pop to look at an old abandoned home that was going to be demolished and Pop’s boss told him that he could take anything he wanted from inside. Pop got fixated on the lovely floor-to-ceiling built in bookcases in what must have been a well-stocked home library. My Mom and I walked behind the house and there was an old shed with a rickety ladder that I scrambled up. I found a few boxes with 1940s vintage post cards, which I added to my growing old post card collection, having been given some neat old post cards from North Africa during WWII that my great-grandmother received from her son, my great Uncle Kenneth, who was in the Army Corps of Engineers. I found General Marshall’s Report and have read it several times and wherever I move this report goes with me. My Pop carefully dismantled those built-in bookcases, carted them home in several trips and he installed some sections in their living room, where both my parents refinished them, creating a lovely focal point. My Pop gave sections of those bookcases away too, because he didn’t have room for the rest.
I spent shy of two years on active duty, choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, when I married and had children. In that short time on active duty, I met many wonderful men and women, but I learned about military leadership and military strategy from men. Military history, almost without exception, is a male endeavor – that’s just the historical record, sorry to break it to the feminist revisionists. To understand military history and the underlying military strategy takes a great deal of effort at trying to understand the world of men and male egos, because frankly a lot of what has happened shakes out to be not some top-lofty intellectual strategic-thinking, but male egos clashing and a lot of male beating upon chests type stuff. Historians coin new terminology and geo-political theories , but at the end of the day, war has more to do about our leaders’ egos than it does about existential threats or even vital national security interests (which aren’t even unanimously agreed upon by “experts”).
In the modern era, there are a few more female leaders in the world, but by a large margin, the world is still run by men. In the Muslim world, it is exclusively run by men. All the multiculturalist kumbaya singing by the women in this administration will not alter that fact. Failing to understand the men beating upon their chests in that neck of the world rests as more than putting the cart before the horse, it’s hiding behind the skirts of a bunch of silly women, who know absolutely nothing about men or war. This President is perceived to be a wimp by other world leaders, particularly by those intent on destroying America.
My first battalion commander taught me about mission, from the big picture down to the little picture and he explained everyone’s role in accomplishing the mission. I was in a Pershing missile battery and our unit crest had the motto, “Mission Accomplished” at the bottom. I asked him what that meant and he patiently explained “missions”, both large and small to a Private First Class, without talking down to me. He explained how everyone has a role in completing the mission. I believe not everyone needs to understand the entire complex big picture mission, but everyone’s got to know enough to instill confidence in the mission and the leaders. President Obama exudes indecisiveness, vagueness and frankly cluelessness, all traits that undercut dynamic leadership. He is a small man wearing a big hat and poorly educated on geography, history, military affairs and lacking in any understanding of grand strategy or diplomacy. He’s a boring sloganeer of mindless phrases for morons to repeat, “Yes, we can!’ I personally would not support any “strategy” he comes up with, because I have ZERO confidence in his judgment and with any use of US military force comes a duty of our military leadership to never sacrifice American blood or treasure without a national purpose. This administration couldn’t define American national interests if we were being overrun by marauding enemies. They’d find excuses for them, instead of protecting, we, the American people.
But, here I’ll jump the partisan line and I’m going to state the truth – the Bush administration’s hope for building “democratic” states in Afghanistan and Iraq lacked any foundation in reality. By setting up states where Sharia law ruled, any hope of “democratic” forms flew out the window. We lacked a coherent big picture strategy beyond the initial toppling the sitting governments and ended flying in a long, long holding pattern looking for some safe landing. Sure, there were some smaller picture strategic successes, but the big picture mission of defining what success looked like defied all the facts on the ground. Words like “defeat the enemy” ring hollow if we’re not prepared for the long slough after they’re defeated, because the powers ready to lead in that area of the world are not compatible with US notions of democracy. Lacking a clear big picture strategic vision led to ad hoc fits and starts as we found ourselves with boots on the ground in inhospitable territory, where both the locals, neighboring states, and even other American adversaries worked behind the scenes to thwart our efforts. We got mired down in nation-building, which the American political right spent the 1990s gravely warning against and here a Republican president led us into a utopian nation-building exercise. It was a poor big picture strategy.
How to learn about military strategy, well, read a lot of books, get used to pouring over maps, become a news junkie, and whenever you think you’re an “expert”, it’s time to have someone knock you off that pedestal and eat some humble pie, because sure as the sun will come out tomorrow Annie, you’ll come across some new intel or fact to throw a wrench in your absolutely brilliant analysis. Be prepared to back up and regroup and be prepared to be knocked down. Learning how to pick yourself up, dust off your backside and trudge on is the best character builder in the world – learn to fight on.
And finally, jumping from modern education to ancient Chinese wisdom, let me end this long ramble with my own test of grand strategy for a state that wants to lead the world – in military strategy the acme of skill is learning how to win without fighting:
– The Art of War by Sun Tzu from classics.mit.edu