Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 2  /  

It Is Our Fault: “No Overarching Strategy”

It Is Our Fault: “No Overarching Strategy” It Is Our Fault: “No Overarching Strategy”
To cite this article: Benson, Kevin C.M., “It Is Our Fault: “No Overarching Strategy”,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, summer 2018, pages 20-22.

In the 11 December 2017 edition of TIME magazine, commenting on the use of Special Operating Forces in Africa, Brigadier General (retired) Donald Bolduc, former commander of US Special Operations in Africa, stated “There is a leadership problem because there is no overarching strategy.”[i]

Bolduc stated there was a leadership problem and he is certainly correct. How did the general and flag officers of the US military allow a situation like this to develop? Indeed, if there is no “overarching strategy,” as Bolduc stated, it is the fault of the officer corps of the military. Have we forgotten Clausewitz, “war is an extension of policy through other means”? Wait, the chorus will say, there is no real policy guidance. In a talk at the Association of the US Army convention on 13 December 2017 General Raymond A. Thomas III, commanding general of US Special Operations Command, stated, “We special operations forces live — some would say thrive — in a world that is often out ahead of policy.”[ii]

Never ask higher headquarters a question without telling it what the answer ought to be was advice from my Advanced Military Studies Program seminar leader COL Gary Griffin, AMSP seminar leader in 1991/92. The same advice I offer applies to the link between policy and strategy. If there is no strategy then take the bull by the horns and develop one. I do not state this flippantly. Of course, the exigencies of the political situation always play a central role in the development and refinement of policy as well as the development/refinement and execution of strategy. Sequestration and uncertain consistency of funding for military programs and operations, as well as readiness are also considerations in the development of strategy. One must ask though, when was this NOT the case in American history?

Military strategy is derived from policy guidance. Military strategy connects operations designed to attain the conditions needed to reach policy objectives. Strategy and the operational art give purpose to tactical actions, ensuring tactical success is not squandered and the occasional tactical failure does not completely upend a campaign. There is policy guidance aplenty upon which to base military strategy. On 21 August 2017 President Trump gave a speech at Fort Myers in which he articulated three conclusions about the policy direction for Afghanistan. He also outlined four pillars for US strategy toward the country. The president stated, “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” He went on to say it is counterproductive for the United States to announce in advance the dates of the start or conclusion of military operations, numbers of troops committed or plans for further military activities. He specified conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide American strategy.[iii]

Subsequent to this speech Trump announced a new National Security Strategy (NSS) on 18 December 2017. The new NSS outlined four major policy objectives for the security of the United States. The National Security Strategy “lays out a strategic vision for protecting the American people and preserving our way of life, promoting our prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence in the world.” The strategy outlines priority actions for each major objective and includes a section on major regions of the world. Even before the Trump administration the Obama administration published similar documents with broad policy objectives and even some specific objectives. The student of strategy and the military art must ask, what more is needed for the development of a strategy?[iv]

The nature of war has not changed as we are motivated by greed, passion, fear, and honor. Clearly though the conditions of war do change. Strategists must recognize this fact. Strategists must also give the enemy/opponent/adversary his due. We must keep in mind the enemy too develops policy and strategy. Given these conditions and what policy there is; tweets, speeches and the newly released National Security Strategy, do we not have the material for an “overarching strategy” we need to confront 21st century enemies and conditions? The tried and true model of ends-ways-means alone apparently no longer provides the answers required for 21st century strategy. I suggest the model first voiced by Eliot Cohen best fits the need for the 21st century.[v]

Cohen proposes a consideration of assumptions, ends-ways-means, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory. I substitute risks for priorities as a change to his model. Risk is ordinarily considered as risk to personnel and risk to mission. Strategic risk must also consider risk to the nation, its standing in the world, and perception of its ability to act in a determined and useful manner. Development of strategic assumptions is the first step.

Assumptions are used in place of facts to continue planning. In developing strategy assumptions also serve as forcing functions during the unequal dialogue with policy makers. This drives home the point that war is an instrument and continuation of policy not merely an extension of policy. Policy makers often turn to the use of force in response to the pressure of “DO SOMETHING.” Even under conditions of restrained budgets the military will retain units and weapons optimized for “doing something” and doing it “now.” The use of assumptions as forcing functions gives the strategist a tool to use in the dialogue and thinking which must precede action. The tried and true ends-ways-means remain useful as a part of the model. The strategist must demonstrate how forces (means) conduct operations/campaigns (ways) to achieve the ends of policy. The use of an assumptions check, asking what if our assumptions do not become fact, must be included in the development of assumptions. A consideration of broad strategic risk naturally follows as step two.

Strategic risk ranges from risk of mission failure to national standing and prestige. Risk consideration includes friendly and enemy actions in the cyber and information domain. Thinking about how the portrayal of our actions would assist or hinder operations is well spent effort, as is thinking about the converse. A caution though, we must be realistic in articulation of risk, the word is over-used and lost meaning. Clear understanding of risk underpins the need for sequencing operations.

The conduct of globally integrated operations considers the sequencing of the range of operations necessary for successful execution of strategy. Strategic sequencing includes deciding on the construct of the theater of war or operations. This decision cues diplomatic, information, military and possibly economic efforts which assume continued access to territories in the theater, over-flight permissions, and air and sea port of debarkation and resupply access. Strategists consider the sequencing of action in the cyber and information domains. Strategists consider how to exploit enemy weaknesses in these domains, the broad conduct of actions over time and so on. Articulation of the “theory of victory” is the final step in developing a strategy.

Cohen wrote the theory of victory could be simply stated as “why do we think this (the strategy) will work.”[vi] “If the US commits force in accord with the strategy developed then we will be victorious because,” demands constant strategic level work and interaction with policy and decision makers. We know and must tell others victory does not merely happen, it is the result of hard work linking tactical success and effect to attaining strategic and policy objectives. Attaining policy objectives is victory in this century of 24/7 media, polarized populations, and dated authorizations for the use of force.[vii] I propose including a pre-mortem analysis of the theory of victory and the overall strategy as a necessary step of development.[viii]

As Kori Schake recently wrote, “The purpose of national security strategies is to outline for the American public a presidential administration’s thinking about our national interests, the threats to those interests, our means to protect and advance our interests, and ways of stringing those means together expeditiously and cost-effectively.”[ix] If the officers we select for advancement to flag rank accept the lack of strategy then we must ask how are we selecting them for these positions of responsibility and how are we educating them along the path of schooling and assignments. Indeed, the recently released summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy calls to question professional military education and talent management.

Secretary of Defense Mattis stated, “Professional Military Education (PME). PME has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” Concerning talent management he also wrote, “Talent management. Developing leaders who are competent in national-level decision-making requires broad revision of talent management among the Armed Services, including fellowships, civilian education, and assignments that increase understanding of interagency decision-making processes, as well as alliances and coalitions.”[x]

Our Army should incorporate the Cohen model into professional military education. It should be taught at the School of Advanced Military Studies and the Army War College. Our Army should also write this model into our doctrine and most importantly practice using the model as strategy is developed. If there is no strategy subordinate headquarters must suggest what the pertinent strategy should look like to their higher headquarters. Professional Soldiers must not tolerate the condition of “no overarching” strategy.

The Cohen model for developing 21st century strategy is straightforward enough a start point for developing strategy and reenergizing critical thinking in the officer corps.[xi] BG Bolduc stated there a leadership problem because there is no overarching strategy. Solving this leadership portion of our strategy problem does not cost money, it is an investment in taking a hard look at how we as an Army develop strategy and the process of linking tactical success to attaining policy objectives. It is also time, as Mattis highlights, to take a critical look at how we educate and select our commanders. Indeed, if there is no “overarching strategy” because we collectively ACCEPTED this condition, this lack is our own fault. It is also well within the capability of the officer corps to address this condition and act to correct it.


[i] W.J. Hennigan, “Inside the New American War of War,” Time Magazine, 11 December 2017, vol. 190, no. 24, page 47.
[ii] GEN Raymond A. Thomas, III cited in “U.S. Commanders Must Embrace Cyber, Special Ops Chief Says,” found at 13 December 2017
[iii] Donald J. Trump, Speech on Afghanistan, delivered 21 AUG 2017 at Fort Myers, VA. Found at
[iv] The National Security Strategy of the United States, 18 December 2017, found at
[v] See Kevin Benson, “DO SOMETHING,” an essay proposing a model for 21st century strategy, Infinity Journal, vol. 4, Issue 1, Summer 2014, p. 14-16.
[vi] Cohen e-mail, 14JAN2012, parenthetical added. Cohen wrote, “My definition of a theory of victory is really simple -- "why do we think this will work?" I wouldn't make it any more complicated than that, since nothing ever really takes into account everything the other side is likely to do.”
[vii] Robert Eating, “What is Congress Good For? Not Declaring War,” in, 16 January 2018.
[viii] A pre-mortem analysis was developed by Dr. Gary Klein. Essentially it assumes: the plan is approved, executed and fails miserably. A red team then spends 15 minutes writing down what would cause failure then uses these potential points of failure to assess a plan.
[ix] Kori Schake, “How to Grade Trump’s National Security Strategy on a Curve,” at 19 December 2017.
[x] James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, found at, p. 8.
[xi] See James M. Dubik, “JUST WAR Reconsidered,” Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2016 for a superb discussion on conducting and sustaining the dialogue necessary to develop policy and strategy.