[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):
Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time
….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.
Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.
I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.
Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.
Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.
By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause. That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.
If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.