Presciently writing on the relationship between tactics and strategy thousands of years ago the Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, stated that "strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory," but "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." His point was simple and clear: if a nation does one thing right in war and conflict it better be strategy first.
In Libya over the last few weeks all that we have seen are tactics. First, it was the political decision to deploy tactical airstrikes against the Gaddafi regime; now we're pondering the tactic of arming the rebels.
Strategy is the part of war that seeks to apply elements of national power -- like deploying combat forces -- to achieve policy goals. Or not -- good strategy sometimes means that based on political goals and the relative costs and risks involved, it might be better to do nothing or just a little. It is unclear exactly what our strategy is with Libya today.
And without a clear strategy, we are already heading down a dangerous path. A military occupation of Libya to "fix it" after the regime is broken or severely damaged through Allied airpower should not be axiomatic.
Already there are hints for ground intervention in Libya. Retired Army General James Dubik is suggesting the possibility for American "boots on the ground" to eventually do state building in Libya. If the Gaddafi regime is eventually broken by American and Allied military power then, according to the General, "wartime realities have a way of forcing themselves on those involved."
General Carter Ham, head of the Africa Command and initially in charge of the air campaign against Gaddafi, suggested in Congressional Testimony that American boots on the ground was certainly a possibility if the regime was broken and order needed to be restored.
Neoconservative writer Max Boot argued that the United States needed to be prepared to do "our part" in a UN peacekeeping effort to prevent a post Gaddafi Libya from being taken over by "terrorists." This is code for Afghanistan version 2.
To make the case that state building in Libya will work, the military is going to rely on its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. The thinking goes in certain quarters within the Pentagon that state building through military occupations and the application of force has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has not.
In Iraq the civil war between the Iraqi people is far from over as the country remains divided among many different lines, and violence still reins in many parts of the country. Nor did improved American methods at state building -- otherwise known as counterinsurgency -- under General David Petraeus and the Surge of Troops bring about the lowered violence in fall of 2007.
Instead, violence lowered in Iraq not because the American Army had mastered the art of societal transformation through armed occupation, but because other more critical conditions like the spread of the Anbar Awakening conspired to lower violence.
Strategy is also in tatters today in Afghanistan. Former American Ambassador Thomas Pickering lamented that "despite the American-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban resistance endures." Nor did the Ambassador think that American counterinsurgency-state building held any promise for success in the future. As much as the United States tried to "win over insurgents" in Afghanistan these efforts were "unlikely to end the conflict," said the Ambassador.
Nor has counterinsurgency-state building worked in previous American wars. There is a fanciful notion in the popular conscious that in the American War in Vietnam a better general named Creighton Abrams arrived on the scene after the Tet Offensive in summer 1968, turned the war around through better state building methods and won it. Such ideas are fiction. The United States lost the Vietnam War because it failed at strategy which should have discerned early on that the war was unwinnable and not worth the cost in blood and treasure.
Strategy must be at the forefront of the unfolding events in Libya, and what to do if the Gaddafi regime is broken through military power. Unfortunately, such essential questions of strategy over the last few years have been grounded down to a set of doctrinaire rules that seem to automatically demand occupation and state building after a regime is broken or damaged.
This kind of thinking has become institutionalized in the American Army and Defense Establishment after nine-plus years of state building in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it should not eclipse sound strategic thinking on Libya as well. Folks who think that American military force has the power to "change entire societies," have probably never been on the business end of an armed, American state building endeavor.
This is the nightmare of perpetual war. It is also the nightmare of American militarism, in that rules and principles from the tactics of American armed state building have overcome strategy, and, more importantly, policy.
Strategy therefore should determine the way ahead in Libya. And it should be a strategy that is informed by history and seeks to prudently align means to policy ends. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has it right when he said that the actions that the U.S. takes in Libya "should be commensurate with the stakes." And weighing overall American core interests in the region, Libya simply is not that important. Strategy should discern this essential truth then devise courses of action commensurate, as Haass argues, with the stakes involved.
Unfortunately, one tends not to hear discussions of strategy with regard to Libya but Sun Tzu's "noise" of the tactics of state building at the barrel of a gun and the foolish notion that it works.
The author is a serving Army Colonel and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad in 2006 and holds a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.