Not so much Tactical as Astrategic

A brief comment: I caught a news report yesterday that the Obama administration was preparing “war crimes” evidence against the Syrian regime for referral to the International Criminal Court, for it’s ongoing campaign of murder against Syrian demonstrators. Struggling to reconcile that policy with the NATO campaign in Libya, which labors under various odd restrictions, legal authorities and assumptions, I decided that “tactical” is not the right word to describe administration policy. Too many obvious potential tactical moves are being ignored, it isn’t just a lack of Mideast policy consistency. So, I thought perhaps a new term is required “astrategic” – which I define as “An orientation of process and action for their own sake, with only an indirect relationship to ends and means”. Accurate? Fair?

17 comments on this post.
  1. J.ScottShipman:

    Zen, Not sure I agree—although it is a neat word. Two thing: (1) I see our activities in Libya as more pay-back to Europe for their support (or silence) in our misadventures in Iraq, and an attempt by the administration to "project strength." (2) The war crimes thing would seems a tactic of a haphazard and relatively sloppy endorsement of the Arab Spring, so-called. As for strategic consistency, there is none; policy on Israel has been true north for a long time, these days old certainties are less certain. Just a thought.

  2. J.ScottShipman:

    Allow me to revise and extend my earlier remark; the definition you provided does seem to match nicely with the word you coined…

  3. zen:

    Hi Scott – It’s kind of a brainstorm type suggestion that I have thrown out there to see what folks have to say. Not sure if it fits either, or if it does not, how the administration’s approach should be categorized. The "war crimes" thing is weird; kudos for wanting to put at least *some* pressure on Assad for shooting unarmed civilians, but Syria is not at war (except technically, with Israel), not even in a civil war (yet). "Crimes Against Humanity" would be more accurate legal charge under IL, or perhaps invoking the Genocide Convention if identifiable subnational groups under that document have been specifically targeted by the Syrian regime.

  4. J.ScottShipman:

    Zen, There is a squishy element to how these crimes against humanity are pursued—don’t get me wrong, there are lots of murderous bastards who deserve to swing, but there is something about global thing that has always left me cold. I agree the admin should get credit for doing "something," but methinks the changes being wrought in the Mid-East are only just beginning…

  5. J.M. Berger:

    I like the word too, and am tempted to say it applies, but I would probably coin the overall policies of the last two administrations as subtactical or psuedotactical. Almost all of the most important things the U.S. government does these days are based on creating the appearance of a short-term gain, rather than the actuality of a gain. 
    Of course, subtactical behavior leads very directly to an astrategic environment, so I guess I am signing on. 

  6. Joseph Fouche:

    The term "astrategic" carries with it the implicit assumption that there’s some platonically ideal equilibrium between ends and means that can be reached by us poor bloody mortals. Strategy in real life is always an imperfect, ugly, and barely functional reconciliation of ends and means, pouring bloody, untidy, and misshapen straight from the sausage machine. As a process, strategy is often only as productive as you’d expect banging the square peg of means into the round hole of ends with only your bare forehead as a hammer would be. 
    More broadly, strategy is a constant struggle to keep the correlation between the three competing poles CvC’s Trinity (primordial passion, chance and probability, and rationalized calculation) more favorable than unfavorable. You may have to settle for the unfavorable ad hoc correlation of the moment over the favorable planned correlation of the longue duree.Contingency is intrinsically more powerful than passion. Passion is more intrinsically powerful that reason. Reversing that natural order into the unnatural order demanded by strategy, reason, passion, and contingency, is frustrating and failure prone. Opportunity comes, opportunity goes; ordeals come, ordeals come.  The ends of passion and the ends of reason clash. They mix uneasily. Add the non-ends of randomness and the mix becomes even more volatile. Given those constraints, raising the bar on what is strategic and what isn’t is ungenerous given how high the bar is for even a passable strategy of just getting by. 
    American foreign policy as broadly conducted over the last 20 years and as narrowly conducted by the Obama administration is not "a"strategic as much as it is cacostrategic (from Greek kakos for bad) or pathostrategic(from Greek pathos for suffering). 
    Even bad or questionable strategy is still strategic.

  7. Mercutio:

    I would suggest instead the acronym "SNAFU" – or better yet some Anglo-Saxon expletive related to that acronym.

  8. zen:


    "As a process, strategy is often only as productive as you’d expect banging the square peg of means into the round hole of ends with only your bare forehead as a hammer would be. "
    Some folk are still on the part of distinguishing "square" from "round" and "peg" from "hole". Or they never bother and just react to stimuli or ignore it as SOP

  9. Dave Schuler:

    I think that the Obama Administration’s actions are less an instance of only an indirect relationship between means and ends than a disagreement with you on ends, Mark.  Just as one example, the primary objective of the Obama Administration (as in all administrations) is a second term.   Consider the actions through that lens. . Also, isn’t it possible that the Administration is really sincere about the "international support" trope that marked the Libyan intervention?  International support will never be forthcoming for intervention against the Syrian regime.  I don’t think that either the Russians or Chinese would stand for it.  The Russian relationship with Syria at least is much cozier than that between Russia and Libya.

  10. seydlitz89:


    Good thought-provoking post, you actually got me out of my hiatus from blogs/blogging, just don’t tell anyone over at milpub ;-)>

    While I agree with Joseph’s comment, I would add a few other points to consider:

    First, "strategy", is a specific concept in terms of strategic theory which can be linked to "strategic effect", but not necessarily so.  Force and personality alone (which are not "strategy" the way I define it – see can achieve strategic effect.  So we need to be clear how we  are using this particular adjective, which need not be linked to a specific strategy at all.  Also the strategy in question might be bad, even self-defeating, as Joseph points out and still be a strategy.

    Second, when has our Middle Eastern policy ever been consistent, in terms of treating all countries the same?  Perhaps under Bush I during 1990-91, but we have always treated the different Arab countries differently in line with our different interests involved.  Bahrain gets a pass, whereas Libya gets NATO intervention, and Syria gets referred to the ICC .  .  . In each case the US interest is seen as different so the response is different.

    Third, the real root cause of the problem is imo our dysfunctional political system which is unable to implement policies which are in the best interests of the country as a political community.  The Iraq war was essentially a collapse of US strategic thought and rather was based on narrow and corrupt interests, deceptive politics and notions of unlimited US power (force) and exceptionalism (personality)  which triggered a still ongoing strategic disaster for US interests in the region, but not limited to it. 

    We have a long way to go and I don’t see us getting there any time soon, unfortunately.

  11. Joseph Fouche:

    Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, just before transmogrifying into Scottish celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, proposed an approach that serious credentialed historians could use if venturing to write the generally silly and uncredentialed genre of counter-factual history: 
    To produce serious counter-factual history that is not utter bollocks, your point of departure from our factual timeline has to be a documented and real credible alternative raised by a documented and real credible person at a documented and real point in time prior to the moment when factual and the proposed counterfactual timelines diverge.
    As Dave Schuler alludes, how Zen, I, or seydlitz interpret what is strategic, what is astrategic, and what is antistrategic is often determined by what we individually interpret as political, apolitical, or antipolitical. We put events in boxes and eventually there is a box beyond which we do not stray because we don’t know this outer box is there. We can perhaps use Ferguson’s approach to separate which of the Administration’s factual alignment of ends to means are impossible and which are merely improbable and which of our various counterfactual alternative alignments of ends to means are impossible or merely improbable.
    The extremes are these:
    1) The administration has no ends and no means. Like the Taoist sage kings of old, Obama just goes golfing and relies on the Tao to work out whether or not Syrian protestors stop stopping bullets.2) Syria is the most important end on Obama’s agenda for the weekend and he secretly has superpowers. Even though it’s Fathers Day, Obama puts on his super suit and flies through the air to northern Syria. Using his power of Vocal Projection, he demands that Syrian army units in the town surrender. Syrian forces open up on the President but their efforts are futile since he’s impervious to Warsaw Pact issue munitions. Obama crushes the units using his Stare of Death and lasers down any dead enders. Obama then flies to Damascus; gathers up all of the culpable members of the Assad regime including the Great Opthamologist himself using his X-Ray vision, all incriminating documents, and every piece of witness testimony; hogties and gift wraps Boy Assad and his henchmen with a giant pink bow to promote breast cancer awareness; flies and deposits them at the Hague for international prosecution; and flies home in time for breakfast with the wife and daughters and hitting the links. 
    Neither of these two extremes are plausible (I hope) and every other option is boxed in between them. Obama and Co. have to accomodate several often irreconcilable ends:
    * the naive realist’s end of a permanent status quo. Deep in Brother Brent Scowcroft’s heart, he wishes Old Man Assad* the naive idealist’s wish for Syria to be an open, vibrant, and democratic society* the naive progressive’s desire for a just and peaceful world based on international law as currently codified* the cynical progressive’s desire for international organizations amenable to the American left and its beliefs and interests to act as a legitimate, institutionalized, and effective check on American power in general and the American right in specific* the unstated desire for obedient furners who just do what the American government says like proper client states* the desire to look like you’re doing something as telegenic protestors are gunned down* an innate American desire to do something, anything, rather than do nothing* the innate leftist belief that armed men will stop shooting unarmed protestors if only they sit down together and have a dialogue that establishes shared understanding* the desire to get inconveniently tacky videos of people being gunned down off the airwaves so the management of them crazy Arabs can be delegated back to minor functionaries deep in the bowels of Foggy Bottom and the Administration can get back to JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! in order to get reelected.* human sympathy for unarmed people yearning to breath free and yet being gunned down by nasty men with moustaches* an engineering mindset common to all Americans that holds that there is a fast and painless solution to every problem if you just throw enough pieces of green paper and high falutin’ rhetoric at it* get Samantha Powers to stop weeping on your shoulder and getting your suit coat wet* wipe that smirk off Boehner’s face
    What are the hypothetical means available?
    * nukes!* air power!* ground forces!* covert ops!* proxy Zionist entities!* cutting edge technology!* money!* diplomacy!* public diplomacy!* multimedia presentations!* lawyers!* empty rhetoric!
    What political conditions, expressed as constraints, exist:
    * America is under the impression that it’s running out of money for furin adventures so there is a general reluctance to spend money* big wars is expensive* that inconvenient legislative branch still exercises some nominal control over some of your spending actions and half of it is controlled by evil Murdochites* Americans are tired of wars that are intensive enough to occasionally enter their passing awareness* the dictates of the domestic political battle mean that action on Syria is at best a distraction and at worse ammunition for the Loyal Opposition* the most dedicated members of your political base are already restless over your inability to bring about a socialist utopia in the first three years of your administration as they believed you promised and they don’t like war* your armed forces have men and equipment that are worn out or rapidly wearing out* accommodating the demands of fake foreign powers like the constituent members of the EU demand that something must be done because they’ve ODed on a fatal and forced transfusion of Wilsonianism and they know they won’t have to significantly mobilize for military intervention anyway since they know you’ll do all the hard work anyway* real foreign powers that must be accommodated like Russia and China who can actually harm you and don’t like all of these precedents that you’re setting where the sovereignty of authoritarian states can be violated if their internal affairs produce untelegenic side effects* there are enough lobbyists, donors, protestors, congress-critters, advocates, and members of the Washington establishment who are unabashed armchair liberal interventionists to make your life difficult if you don’t do something, especially since they’ll escape any responsibility for anything that goes wrong while you’ll bear the brunt of the blame
    Given those constraints and others, launching an empty fig leaf indictment process through a show court that will take decades to work out is not a bad option. Making a demonstration that is more light than substance is sufficient given the politics, especially since it is part of the Obama Administration’s "grand" strategy of kicking the can down the road, extending and pretending, and trading rhetorical space for political time. You could even describe it as legitimately Clausewitzian since Clausewitz extended some of his definitions of what constituted war to include demonstrations as part of his unfinished efforts to better accomodate limited war within the existing framework of On War.

  12. Overgrown Comment, Short Post « The Committee of Public Safety:

    […] posts: A brief comment: I caught a news report yesterday that the Obama administration was preparing […]

  13. zen:

    Mulling this over. Not at home much these past few weeks which is slowing my blog response time but a response is in progress

  14. J.ScottShipman:

    @JF, "extending and pretending"—that is a nice turn of a phrase.

  15. Joseph Fouche:

    @Scott: Wish I could claim credit but the phrase "extend and pretend" comes from leftist critics of the administration’s financial policies. It can aptly be expropriated by a right winger and applied to other administration policies with a similar spirit. 

  16. A comment on a comment on a comment « Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon:

    […] Discussion, which was in turn a comment on Citizen Fouche’s comment on Zenpundit’s post Not so much Tactical as Astrategic. If we take the original post that spawned this series as the statement of a thesis and the point […]

  17. Charles Cameron:

    You have a great many nice turns of phrase, Citoyen Fouché.  I do  not believe you will be able to disclaim all of them.