Sunday, August 3, 2008

Definitions of strategy I: combining Clausewitzian concepts with the Presidential election

A fellow politico friend of mine loves to remind me that his boss would get out of his chair and leave the room whenever one of his subordinates asked for a definition of a term.

I sympathise with this stance but can't escape the feeling that discussions of strategy, politics and Clausewitz are aided by some definitions. Needless to say, the following are not offered in any sense as definitive definititions but rather as a jumping off point for greater accuracy in due course. I've started by offering my definitions on some of the terms that subsequent postings will be using.

The political object
"The political object is the goal, war the means" - On War, Book I, Chapter I

The supreme purpose of the conflict. In the case of the US Presidential election, the political object is quite simply the winning of the White House.

The 'military' object
The chief means of achieving the political object. In the case of the US Presidential election, the 'military' object is the securing of 270 Electoral Votes so as to win the General Election.

Negative object
The defence or retention of that which is already possessed. In '08 terms, this could equate to each party's retention of those states won in 2004.

Positive object
The securing of a goal (usually a territory) from the enemy, In '08 terms, this is exemplified by the McCain campaign's efforts to win Michigan or the Obama effort to win Ohio.

Elements of strategy
The myriad of elements from the minor to major that make up strategy as a whole.

Angles of approach
The combination of the different elements of strategy into a small number of groups, which I term angles of approach. These angles are then manipulated so as to combine their effects in smashing the centre of gravity, thus delivering the political object.

In '08 terms, angles of approach might contain the sum of all turnout efforts or the candidate's overall campaign message.

Centre of gravity
“A certain centre of gravity, a centre of power and movement, will form itself, on which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy, the concentrated blow of all the forces must be directed.” – On War, Bk. VIII, ch. 4

The identification of the centre of gravity is the first step in creating a war plan as from this decision all further choices flow. In '08 terms, the challenge lies in selecting from such various options such as Ohio for McCain or the Rustbelt theatre as a whole for Obama.

Potential results
"Possible combats are on account of their results to be looked upon as real ones." - On War, Book III, Chapter I

Much like in chess where one creates potential attacks which though not necessarily executed nonetheless force one's opponent to expend resources in defence have power so in politics, where threats and feints can have real impact.

The sudden build-up of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine as a potential Obama running mate has all the hallmarks of a classic feint. Not only did it dramatically boost Obama campaign coverage in this key battleground state it has already forced the McCain campaign to seriously consider a counter-candidate, Virginia Congressman Mikey Cantor. Likewise, this weekend's chatter about Indiana Evan Bayh seems strikingly familiar to the Kaine gambit.

"Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction" - On War, Book I, Chapter 7.

Here Clausewitz tackles the difference between theory and reality. The concept has been immortalized pithily from Eisenhower's "no plan survives contact with the enemy" to Rumsfeld's somewhat cruder "stuff happens."

In politics, friction plays out daily from candidate mis-speaks like Obama's "bitter" remarks to poor event organising such as frequently displayed by the McCain campaign.

Clausewitzian genius is not just high intelligence but rather sang froid in the heat of battle, combined with an ability to stick to the plan and see it through whilst contradictorily being capable of adjusting the plan where neccesary to adapt to changed realities. Clausewitzian genius often lies in being able to tell when to stick to the former, and when to change to the latter.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's insistence in the run-up to the Super Tuesday primary on sticking to the agreed delegate-pursuit strategy in states like Idaho and Utah even when Obama himself was pressing for a shift of focus to California to score a psycological victory against Senator Clinton is a fine example of Clausewitzian genius.

The defence is stronger then the attack
“The defensive form, with a negative object, is the stronger form, the attack, with the positive object, the weaker” - Notice from Carl von Clausewitz.

One of the most important yet oft overlooked components of Clausewitzian strategy explains why Clausewitz attached such great importance to understanding the negative and positive objects and their effect on strategy.

In US election terms, this plays out through the respective strengths of McCain and Obama in the states carried by their parties in 2004. Despite all the disadvantages facing the GOP this year, the challenge Obama faces in flipping red states to blue is an excellent illustration of this concept.

The single german word that covers the english words politics, policy and polity. It's versatility and utility is illustrated in the title of this blog.

The main areas of the conflict in which geographically distinguished major operations occur.

Fivethirtyeight considers the theatres of the Presidential race to be New England, Acela, South Coast, Gulf Coast, Highlands, Rustbelt, North Central, Prairie, South West, Big Sky and Pacific.

Their breakdown is as follows: New England (Massachussets, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont), Acela (named after a regional train service: New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington DC, Delaware), South Coast (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina), Gulf Coast (Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi), Highlands (Montana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia), Rustbelt (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana), North Central (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa), Prairie (Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota), South West (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada), Big Sky (Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska) and Pacific (California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii).

Levels & Dimensions of strategy
Working off a number of Clausewitzian concepts, the noted modern strategist Edward Luttwak has defined the following as the levels of strategy: technical, tactical, operational, theatre strategic, grand strategic.

Technical refers to equipment and mechanics, for example voter identification technology; tactical refers to small engagements, such as daily media clashes; operational to large engagements, like the Presidential debates; theatre strategic to the actions concerned with the struggle for a particular theatre, such as the Rustbelt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana; grand strategic to the use of any and all means, political, cultural, economic and more right across the board for the purpose of victory.

Understanding the interaction between the levels (the vertical dimension) and within each level (the horizontal dimension) is vital to understanding strategy as a whole. In other words, the choice of voter ID system may well impact upon the choice of daily media message, the use of that message in a debate, the effectiveness of that debate performance in a theatre and the consequent role of that theatre in the grand strategy.

Escalation is inherent in war
Clausewitz considered this idea to be absolutely crucial to any understanding of war. he believed that escalation was the natural course of conflict and dedicated much of his work to exploring why this was the case and how escalation could be controlled.

Escalation asserts itself in the Presidential race with each and every exchange of negative ads. A punch usually leads to a counterpunch and so forth, each in turn is often made with increasing force.

Despite escalation, and at times even because of it, action can sometimes be suspended in strategy when both sides judge that it is in their interests to "wait for a better moment before acting."

Like escalation, the seemingly simple concept has profound implications for strategy. For example, both campaigns likely view the three week period of the Olympic games, when voters minds are decidely elsewhere, as a prime opportunity for suspension. However, one side may choose to strike during this period of suspension with a Vice Presidential pick. This would in turn provoke a significant response from their opposition as escalation reasserts itself.

The Trinity
One of Clausewitz's finest contributions to strategic thought, the idea of a Trinity of passion, chance and reason is often characterised as the interplay of the people, the army and the government. The idea is that war is framed by these forces and moves closer to a particular element and away from others depending on the relative strengths of each part of the Trinity.

An '08 analogy would be the relationships between the electorate, the candidate and their campaign. Thus, the election's fate is determined by their interaction. In this respect, the unusual individual popularity John McCain is a key determinant in overcoming many of his campaign's serious structural problems as well as the electorate's general antipathy for the GOP brand.

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