Strategy Traps


Strategy is, by its nature, difficult. Those things that characterise strategy – the fact, for example, that it is framed in relation to a thinking, adaptive adversary – make it relentlessly difficult to do well. This blog focuses on identifying four specific challenges that can arise in the framing of strategy. I have called them ‘strategy traps’ because these are issues that often don’t seem like problems at the beginning of a conflict. Over time, however, leaders can find that such factors as those explored below can make strategy-making progressively more problematic.

The first trap is falling into the assumption that strategy is everything: that without a strategy at the beginning of a conflict, success is impossible. Governments can often be under huge pressure to articulate early on a strategy for a conflict. In 2014, President Obama was criticised because, having decided to initiate air strikes in Syria, he admitted that ‘we don’t have a strategy yet’. But in pressuring decision-makers to announce a strategy early, there can be a danger of giving strategy a talismanic quality – of assuming that, once we have a strategy, success is assured. The problem is that at the start of a conflict, facts are very thin on the ground. In such circumstances beliefs fill the void. Debates about strategy essentially can become exchanges of views shaped by political complexion, domestic politics, values, assumptions about historical analogies, and reflections on personal experience. Major, early decisions on approaches to a conflict can push governments into strategic cul-de-sacs that can later be very difficult to get out of. Obama’s critics over Syria have articulated a range of possible strategies, including no-fly zones and safe havens. But since these aren’t really strategies (only the means that might form part of a strategy), and since these alternatives themselves are very controversial, it isn’t obvious that adopting them would improve things materially. The fact that views on strategy are strongly held or clearly articulated says nothing necessarily about their utility.

Indeed, effective strategy often can be emergent in nature, as it was for the Union during the American Civil War. Lincoln’s eventual approach to the war was shaped by a process of strategic learning in which it became clear that early limited war strategies did not suit the actual conditions of conflict. Equally, one Deputy Under-Secretary in the British Foreign office commented to a historian that: ‘Our skill is in not having a grand strategic concept’. The British way, according to the nineteenth century Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, was to ‘float lazily downstream occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat-hook to avoid collisions’. Incrementalism and pragmatism may not always be negative. Having no strategy may sometimes be preferable to having the wrong one.

Decision-makers often set a second strategy trap themselves: it is the trap posed by their own words. Strategy is the art of the possible: there is no value in a strategy that cannot actually be delivered. The art of the possible is shaped by many things. For example, some strategies only become possible when others have been shown to fail. During the 1999 Kosovo campaign, using airpower to attack non-political targets only became feasible when it was shown that trying to coerce Milosevic’s regime by attacking the Serb military didn’t work. But decision-makers can often shape the art of the possible by engaging in rhetoric that later constrains the strategic options available. President Obama, for example, has already argued that there will be US no boots on the ground in Syria and that President Assad cannot be part of a political solution there. Rolling back on these kinds of firm statements can be difficult, not least because they can be seized upon by political opponents as indications of indecision and policy failure.

The difficulty for strategy is that circumstances can change. Thus President Obama has now had to engage in some very special verbal gymnastics to argue that the deployment of 50 Special Forces does not constitute boots on the ground. But these kinds of rhetorical constraints on strategy are all too easy to create. Obama’s comments, for example, were responses to very real domestic pressures, and he is hardly alone in having created these difficulties for himself. For example, one key problem that faced President George W. Bush’s administration in crafting a strategy to end the war in Afghanistan was that the President had already portrayed the conflict to the American people as a Manichean struggle between good and evil in which nothing less than victory was an acceptable outcome, and in which victory would be achieved if only the US could stay the distance.

A third common trap in strategy-making lies in picking the wrong metrics with which to measure success. Strategy-makers can therefore believe that they are winning a war when, in fact, they are not. An important foundation of effective strategy lies in having some kind of mechanism for feedback and assessment: one has to be able accurately to answer the question ‘how are we doing?’ Lacking this sort of mechanism, one cannot know if a given strategy is working. The difficulties posed by choosing the wrong metrics, or of not being able to agree on the metrics, were well illustrated in Afghanistan. Rory Stewart observed a recurring structure, an ‘astonishing chanted liturgy,’ to the views of consecutive ISAF commanders: ‘each new general in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011 suggested that the situation he had inherited was dismal; implied that this was because his predecessor had had the wrong resources or strategy; and asserted that he now had the resources, strategy, and leadership to deliver a decisive year.’ If decision-makers cannot agree on how a war is going, the debates on strategy are unlikely to be very productive. There are many roots to the metrics problem: the complexity of the tasks being performed, for example, or the number of participants. But vague end states can also contribute. This poses a very real problem in Syria. Are we there to ‘destroy’ ISIS, as some have argued, or to ‘degrade’ them? What do these terms actually mean, and how do we measure effectively whether we are making progress in attaining them?

Finally, strategy-makers can often fall inadvertently into the trap of activating latent interests. Classically, these latent interests relate to the political survival of the politicians that took the country to war in the first place, and the credibility of their state. Once the language of weakness becomes strongly attached to compromise options, there can be an inherent tendency towards escalation, or to the avoidance of decisions that might be portrayed by critics as a defeat. For example, some of the criticisms of Obama’s policy towards Syria are that it is too timid, especially set alongside the commitments made by Russia and Iran. Obama, so it is argued, has made the US look weak, and the US hasn’t exerted the necessary leadership. Leaving aside the point that many of the key actors in the Syrian crisis aren’t interested in being led by the US, the danger with the alternatives put forward, such as the commitment of larger-scale forces or the adoption of more confrontational methods towards Russia, is that they risk activating just the sorts of credibility related interests that might warp the nature of US involvement in the Syrian crisis. Each increase in the US commitment raises the costs of failure to the US and to President Obama. In such circumstances strategy can become dominated simply by the desire to avoid the domestic and international costs of looking weak, leading to the escalation and/or the protraction of a conflict out of proportion to the original interests at stake..

These sorts of problems are among a whole raft of reasons why strategy-making is challenging. There are no easy choices. Incrementalism can sometimes lead to drift in strategy; or it can sometimes give the time necessary for strategic learning. Strong rhetoric by leaders may help to communicate more clearly with adversaries and allies; but it may also later shut-off some desirable options; demonstrations of strength may help to deter and coerce; or they may trap leaders into a cycle of escalation. As Colin S. Gray argues: ‘strategic thinking is difficult; indeed, strategy is so difficult to do well that it is remarkable that it is ever practiced successfully’.


The second edition of Understanding Modern Warfare, of which the writer is a co-author, will be available in 2016.

Image: Barack Obama meets with military leaders from 22 nations to discuss strategy in the Middle East during a conference at Joint Base Andrews, Md., October, 2014, via wikimedia commons.

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