Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why Strategies Fail

Washington, D.C. is a town that loves strategies.  When I was at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we devoted lots of resources to drafting a Congressionally mandated "Annual Strategy" (even though my boss, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey noted that anything done annually cannot be a strategy.  In the Pentagon, I participated in lots of strategic exercises.  As Rand's Raphael S. Cohen (a former Army officer) notes, these exercises are almost very disappointing in a must read post at Lawfare. 

So why do so many strategies disappoint? As Cohen explains, they disappoint because they fail to make tough choices--which is the very point of any strategy:
Finally, good strategies need to be substantive. Somewhat ironically, given how much criticism it received at the time, two decades later, the 1993 Bottom-Up Review is the strategy that is most often used as a baseline for subsequent major defense reviews. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of them is its analytic transparency. Of all the attempts at national security strategy over the past quarter century, the Bottom-Up Review perhaps makes the clearest argument about linking threats to a force-sizing construct and to procurement decisions—in other words, linking ends, ways, and means together in a transparent fashion. Too often strategies instead devolve into platitudes, leaving strategy’s three major components disconnected and, at times, incoherent.
More often than not, the lack of succinctness, sharpness, and substance in strategies is just a symptom of the deeper reason why the strategy-making process so often yields lackluster results. They fail because leaders are unwilling to make difficult decisions—to focus on one threat as opposed to another, prioritize resources accordingly, and then explain their decisions publicly—at risk of being wrong. Instead, they prefer to delegate the process to the bureaucracy, which lacks the institutional power and the incentive to make decisions.
This may be why so many congressional attempts to reform national security strategies have come up short over the years: The real problem is not process; it is the aversion to making decisive and perhaps irrevocable choices. What makes this aversion all the more vexing is that, from the standpoint of some, it is entirely logical. Decisive choices can make enemies within the bureaucracies, lead to congressional scrutiny, and, perhaps most importantly, risk assuming blame for potential catastrophes when decisions prove wrong. Moreover, the benefits of getting strategy “right” are sometimes only visible long after the policymaker leaves office. Far better to settle for mediocrity and play it safe.
Read it all here. A strategy is a document that guides the tough choices we will make given the constraints in the environment.  If it fails to even recognize that there are choices to be made, it will fail.

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