At his news conference yesterday President Obama set the foreign policy commentators aflutter with this statement:
But I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet. I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are. And I think that's not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military, as well. We need to make sure that we've got clear plans, that we're developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress and make sure that their voices are heard.
As is often the case, those looking to attack Obama fastened on the "we don't have a strategy yet" statement, ignoring earlier comments he had made that provide more context to his current thinking, such as this:
Now, ISIL poses an immediate threat to the people of Iraq and to people throughout the region, and that's why our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader comprehensive strategy to protect our people and to support our partners who are taking the fight to ISIL, and that starts with Iraq's leaders building on the progress that they've made so far and forming an inclusive government that will unite their country and strengthen their security forces to confront ISIL.
Any successful strategy, though, also needs strong regional partners. I'm encouraged so far that countries in the region, countries that don't always agree on many things, increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat that ISIL poses to all of them. And I've asked Secretary Kerry to travel to the region to continue to build the coalition that's needed to meet this threat.
As I've said, rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will, working closely with our allies and our partners. For our part, I've directed Secretary Hagel and our Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a range of options. I'll be meeting with my National Security Council again this evening as we continue to develop that strategy. And I've been consulting with members of Congress, and I'll continue to do so in the days ahead.
So, while it may be true that there is not yet a fully developed comprehensive strategy for how to deal with the unfolding events in Iraq and Syria, there is obviously a process of strategic thinking that has been unfolding for some time. Obama's critics don't want to hear this, of course, because, they are not really interested in the rather vexing strategic issues involved with ISIL; they only want to wage a domestic political attack against Obama while he faces difficult foreign policy challenges.
Sunzi provides two concepts that help us see the kind of strategic problem ISIL poses: "shape" (or "form") and "ground."
On shape, there's this from chapter 6 (Griffith translation):
24. The ultimate in disposing one's troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wise lay plans against you.
25. It is according to the shapes that I lay plans for victory, but the multitude does not comprehend this. Although everyon can see the outward aspects, none understands the way in which I created victory.
26. Therefore, when I have won a victory I do not repeat my tactics but respond to circumstasnces in an infinite variety of ways.
"Shape" here has a physical aspect: the territorial array of military capabilities. But this is not simply a matter of cartography. "Shape" has an interiority as well, something other than the "outward aspects," and this might include command structures, internal lines of communcation and logistics, and the quality of the troops themselves. It is hard to discern an adversaries shape, but is essential to do so if an effective strategy is to be created.
The key question, then, is: what is the shape of ISIL? On the face of it, that seems hard to know. The maps we see suggest a dispersed network running through a large territory. ISIL, regardless of its claims, is not really a territorial state; it is more of a movement. It has emerged and expanded rapidily and unexpectedly. It does not really have a clearly ascertainable shape, which may be its chief strategic advantage at this point.
How, then, can the US respond to an adversary that thus far has not fully taken shape? Caution and prudence are called for. If and when ISIL settles into a more definite territorial form, and more can be learned about its internal structures, then, and really only then, can a more complete US strategy be possible.
But shape is not the only variable, Sunzi would remind us, "ground" is important as well.
Sunzi has much to say about ground in chapters 10 and 11. It is a multi-layered concept. Its first connotation is "terrain". This seems an obvious point: military planning clearly has to take geography and physical terrain into account. But it also implies soemting more than that, including broader contextual factors, as here in chapter 11, "the nine kinds of terrain" (Ames translation):"
The territory of several neighboring states at which their borders meet is a strategically vital intersection. The first to reach it will gain the allegiance of the other states of the empire.
He goes on to advise how the act in such a situation:
...form alliances with the neighboring states at strategically vital intersections...
This comes close to the territorial context of ISIL, though it is now focused largely at the intersection of two instead of several states (Jordan, however, could come into play soon...). From the US perspective, ISIL already occupies the "strategically vital intersection" (Griffith translates this as "focal ground."), and thus has a certain advantage. If we are to heed Sunzi's advice, the best option for the US is to work with Syria and Iraq to counter ISIL, which is precisely what Obama is doing. And it is precisely this necessity of working within the exiting strategy conext - "ground" - that creates such difficulties for the US.
Let's remember: as ISIL has risen up, the Iraqi government has fallen down, its military, a critical strategic asset, has run from the field, and its executive leadership has changed hands. It is still not clear whether the new political leadership in Baghdad will be capable. As to Syria, the fluidity of the situation over the past year seems to now require a significant shift in the strategic assessment of the Assad regime. What was once identified as an adversary to be fought against (even if the prospects of a "moderate resistance" has always been very, very weak) is now transformed into a tactic strategic partner against ISIL. That kind of change takes time to manage and absorb. It's not clear if doing so will be in the longer term interests of the US in the region.
To make matters worse, neither Syria nor Iraq exercises control over the territories that they claim. Both lack "stateness." ISIL operates in the interstices of two failed states.
All in all, what Obama faces with ISIL and Syria and Iraq is a very complex problem. Indiscriminate bombing of apparent bad guys, while perhaps satisfying in a transitory sort of way, is hardly the start of the viable longer term strategy. What is required now is patience and thought and planning. Sunzi starts his book with a chapter on "Estimates" In it, he speaks of gaming out strategy before the actual use of military force. He writes (Griffith translation):
With many calculations, one can win; with few one cannot. How much less chance of victory has one who makes none at all!
That's where Obama is now. He has "no strategy" because he has not yet fully discerned the shape of the adversary and how to best use the ground of the conflict. It will take some time to get it right. And, if Bush's failed war in Iraq has taught us anything, it is that we should not rush into complex situations too hastily with an ill-considered strategy.