Sun Tzu: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
We have heard a lot of noise over the past week from the White House…and we are about to hear a whole lot more…
The president intends to conduct a surgical military strike against Syria in the near future because Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad violated international norms to send a message. And despite the limited duration of any such planned military action and the lack of clear and achievable objective there is a frightening gap between Obama's rhetoric and the reality we face.
The old adage applies here: plan for the worst, but hope for the best. However, “hope” is not a strategy and it is not a sound policy regarding Syria.
It is time for President Obama to level with the American people and Congress.
The White House needs to expand its horizon and create realistic expectations of what any military action will bring.
Surgical strikes never go exactly as planned.
Many experts believe Assad will not heed the message and will instead continue to act illogically and use chemical weapons against his people, again.
What are we to do then; what then are our options; what will be the cost of the next move and the next move after that?
Congress is more aware than the president to the reality of political backlash that will come with the blind use of U.S. unilateral military force; and in the end what are our options if the message carried by our cruise missiles and manned bombers does not take?
Will we be obligated to widen our message to even more expensive deployments of more military force and troops?
Some in Congress have considered using the Syria strike as an excuse to kill the reduction in rate of budget growth (also known as the "sequester") – therefore, this limited military action is unjustifiable both from the known expense – and the huge secondary expense that would likely follow.
This is the reality we face: any miss of our weapons will have tragic second and third order consequences that will expand the expense and scope of the conflict.
Are we ready for global escalation if any external casualties such as, a Russian technician or several Quds Force Iranian troops are accidentally killed?
The Iranians have already threatened us and the Russians have stated they will side with Syria in any conflict – is the White House prepared for this potential – are we prepared for an investment of our blood and treasure in another expensive, unfocused, ill-conceived war?
More importantly, imagine for just a second that we are wildly successful and degrade Assad’s military command and control so well that he is no longer able to launch chemical weapons attacks.
The secondary effect of our action will be to eliminate his ability to control, via his chain of command, the stockpiles of chemical weapons. What if we render him unable to guarantee these weapons security? Are we prepared to put the 75,000 boots on the ground to secure them?
Clearly it would not be an “international norm” for us to simply leave these chemical weapons available to the rebels – so how far are we prepared to go?
Syria is a symptom of a larger problem. Over the past 12 years (since the 9/11 attack) tactics to counter terror have distracted us from achieving any strategic focus.
We have now, as we have for the past decade, the finest, most lethal fighting force that mankind has ever seen.
There is no doubt that we would quickly dispatch any military challenger. From Fallujah, Iraq to Gardyz, Afghanistan, to other secret battles that are not yet public – we have won hundreds of tactical engagements and yet, somehow, we have yet to win a single strategic victory.
During World War II there was a clear strategy that was followed bring victory in that war in less than five years.
During the Cold War, there was a very clear strategy of containment and mutually assured destruction and all tactics were based on insuring the success of these larger strategies.
Our great tactical capacity now drives our Pentagon budget and creates the temptation for politicians to this lethal capability without regard to a strategy that would focus our efforts to achieve global success.
There is no clear national interest for Congress and the American people to get behind regarding Syria – and no strategy behind which we can all pull together and support. We are now in an era of dominance without purpose.
We have great weapon systems, great men and women manning them, and the ability to use them anywhere on the planet in a time of our choosing…but for what purpose?
Syria is not a justifiable purpose.
We, as a nation, cannot achieve success if we fail to establish a strategic objective – to begin with what we wish to accomplish in mind.
We have waited too long to engage on the Syria issue and we are now reacting to this lose/lose prospect in Syria.
We must establish a strategy that allows us to anticipate events; not allowing events to shape us.
There are things we can and should do to truly help the people of Syria. But simply conducting a punitive military strike will only make things worse for them and us.
We have options –diplomatic, special operations, humanitarian, and transnational or international coalition - that we must examine before we act with a kinetic option.
It is time for President Obama to level with the American people and Congress – to tell them how bad things could get if we fail in this quick kinetic action. In addition, formulate a strategy that allows for U.S. engagement, and, dare I say, long term success and victory.
Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer (ret.) is a CIA trained former senior intelligence officer and the New York Times bestselling author of Operation "Dark Heart: Spycraft an Special Operations on the Frontlines of Afghanistan – And The Path to Victory." His latest book is The Last Line. He is a senior fellow with both the London Center for Policy Research and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. The opinions reflected here are those solely of Lt. Col. Shaffer -- and are not the opinion of the London Center for Policy Research (LCPR), the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (CADS) or of any other group or organization with which Lt. Col. Shaffer is affiliated.