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Joe Klein: Obama, Strategy, and Tactics

John on September 28, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Joe Klein had a piece at Time yesterday declaring Obama the winner of the debate. It’s headlined Obama Wins Debate on Tactics and Stategy. Klein writes:

As for McCain’s remark about Obama not knowing the difference between a tactic and a strategy—McCain was wrong. The counterinsurgency methods introduced by David Petraeus in Iraq were a tactical change, a new means to achieve Bush’s same strategic end of a stable, unified Iraq. If Bush had decided to partition the country, or to withdraw, that would have been a change in strategy.

Actually, that’s not correct. A blogger at Augean Stables corrects Obama (and thus Klein):

Many people do not properly understand the difference between the two, and it is a crucial difference.

There are four levels of warfighting- Policy, Strategy, Operations, and Tactics. Strategy is the marriage between the political ends and the military means. Tactics, to give a boiled-down definition, is what is done when in combative contact with the enemy- the manuevers, attacks, timing, etc. To elucidate with an historical example – In WWII, the policy was the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. One of the strategies to achieve that policy was to knock out the German industrial capacity through aerial bombing runs. There were many operations, or organized collections of missions, meant to ensure that the bombing strategy was successful. The tactics involved in the operations include the decision to bomb at night, non-evasive flying to increase the accuracy of the bombing, and dogfighting manuevers by the fighter escorts.

So, returning to Klein’s statement above…Had President Bush decided to leave Iraq, that would have been a change of policy, not a new strategy. The surge was a change in strategy.

Curiously, before his candidate was backed into a corner, Klein knew this. In January of 2007 when the surge was being proposed, Klein referred to it in this way:

But what about retired General Jack Keane…and the significant number of military intellectuals who have favored a labor-intensive counterinsurgency strategy in Baghdad for the past three years?

In September of ’07, Klein had this to say:

George W. Bush’s credibility on Iraq is nonexistent. And so he has placed David Petraeus, an excellent soldier, in a position way above his pay grade. He has made Petraeus not just the arbiter of Iraq strategy but also, by default, the man who sets U.S. policy for the entire so-called war on terrorism.

So, at some point in the past, Joe Klein seemed to know that Petraeus surge was a strategy. Now his fortunes lie elsewhere, I suppose. [Note: For a history of Klein's outspoken opposition to the surge, check here.]

Why does any of this matter? Because Obama was wrong too. He was wrong in the debate last night and he was wrong when he first tried to employ this distinction in a major speech on July 15th, the same day that criticism of the surge disappeared from his campaign website.

Obama has tried to minimize the importance of the surge so as to minimize his own failure in rejecting it. But as I and others said at the time, the difference is no less that the difference between abject and costly failure and something that looks increasingly like victory. Obama blew it and so did Joe Klein. Both are trying to parse terms (poorly) to explain away their own failures.

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Category: Politics |

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