By David Palko —
On November 17, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a public address at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The address, sponsored by the Institute of Politics, was entitled, “The Interplay of Policy and Strategy.”
Mullen began his speech by listing three conclusions, discerned over his years of service, about the proper use of modern military force:
- The military is the “best, first tool of the state,” but it “should not be the only tool.”
- Military force should be employed in a “precise and principled way.”
- The process of meshing military operations with national policy is “iterative.”
The third of these conclusions served as the focus of the remainder of Mullen’s remarks. He elaborated on the ideal planning process for military operations: political and military leaders maintaining constant communication, so that they can jointly adjust action based upon the situation on the ground. To illustrate the success of such an approach, Mullen offered several historical examples, the most compelling of which concerned the Korean War. After the success of the Inchon landings in September 1950, Truman broadened his goals to focus on achieving a unified peninsula. Yet, once China became involved, the political situation changed. As a result, U.S. leaders reevaluated their plans and decided to once again focus on creating a stable border at the 38th parallel. According to Mullen, this flexibility in light of political changes demonstrates the proper link between policy and strategy. Summarizing this interconnection, Mullen cited the classic Clausewitz maxim: military operations are “the continuation of politics by other means.”
Mullen sought to contrast this marriage of policy and strategy with the “hand off” approach to the military, in which national policy makers develop strategies and then “hand off” operations to the military to accomplish the mission. Mullen said that such a process must be avoided, because it is too static. Military operations – deemed “discovery of the most lethal sort” by Mullen – provide a constant stream of new information. Therefore, leaders must adapt to address the implications of new intelligence rather than blindly adhering to goals based upon initial estimates.
Admiral Mullen concluded by stating that the Obama administration has admirably subscribed to this adaptive approach in regards to Afghanistan. As an example, Mullen cited the fact that the administration’s strategy has shifted to focus more on training Afghani forces, so that they can ultimately take over security operations. He also noted that the strategy has shifted more toward economic development as U.S. leaders have come to realize that security is necessary but not sufficient for stability. Rather, stability also requires good governance, which is inextricably linked with economic development. Although Mullen indicated a desire to avoid “overstating” current successes, he nonetheless expressed confidence that the United States is “slowly but surely” bringing about progress in the region and will ultimately accomplish its mission.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense