Strategy, an oft used and abused word. Governments are condemned for failing to develop coherent national security strategies, CEO’s find themselves sitting roadside seeking employment for not sketching the appropriate business strategy, and military tacticians are frequently condemned for not developing the appropriate strategy.
All of which begs the question, what the hell is “strategy?”
If we defer to Webster (why not?) strategy is defined as: “the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war.”[i]
Works for me, with the exception of the fact there is an implied sense of action. One is only being strategic if bureaucratic shuffling or some form of movement is taking place within the departments that constitute any government.
What happens if we shift focus? Turn strategy into a passive noun?
For wisdom on this decision I defer to Deng Xiaoping—China’s leader from 1978-1989. Interesting man, never assumed Mao’s titles or sought to be declared General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He was, nonetheless, the undisputed overlord for a nation of approximately one billion people. All that with a stature of five feet, zero inches. In short (no pun intended), a diminutive physical presence with a giant intellectual perspective. Deng bootstrapped China into the economic behemoth we all now encounter on a daily basis.
But I digress.
Deng’s contribution to revisiting the meaning of strategy is found in this gem from September 1989:
First, we should observe the situation coolly. Second, we should hold our ground. Third, we should act calmly. Don’t be impatient; it is no good to be impatient. We should be calm, calm and again calm, and quietly immerse ourselves in practical work to accomplish something for China.[ii]
Wisdom in simplicity.
Deng is suggesting Beijing assume a posture of what I will call “strategic patience.” Rather than rush about, allow time and events to transpire. In essence, ignore General George Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Instead of charging into an adversary’s territory with guns blazing, wait for the smoke to clear and then play your cards.
Tehran has been learning from Deng.
Ah, those pesky Iranian revolutionaries. The ones who toppled the Shah, established an Islamic Republic and then held American hostages for 444 days. You remember them. Or at least may have read about them in a history text.
Caused panic in the Middle East and West. Radical Islamists were back, in force. Recovered from their 1000 years of shame, these guys were the real deal. Going to change the ideological and theological landscape of the Middle East—nay, the world. Took aim at the Saudi princes and went to war with Saddam Hussein.
And then went silent—save our aperiodic poking and prodding.
Guess what, Tehran is back.
And the boys in Caliph Ibrahim’s new Islamic State aren’t pleased. Nor is Washington DC.
Turns out the Chinese are not the only ones who understand strategic patience. While Washington threw blood and treasure into Iraq, Tehran stood by and watched. The same may be said of our futile gesture in Afghanistan. (I am not making this up…even Donald Trump thinks we are losing in Afghanistan.[iii]).
Now it is Tehran’s turn.
Iran has rallied the Shia press on ISIS and is busily inserting itself into Kabul’s affairs.[iv] All while Washington seeks a means of extracting itself from the two longest wars in American history.
One can almost see the Persian mythic hero Rostam beaming in the background.
Tehran has seemingly outwitted Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Raqqah, Doha, Damascus, and Baghdad. And largely without shedding blood or expending significant capital. Oh, and actually surrendered Iran’s nuclear program somewhere in the midst of this political rout.
Maybe I’m missing something here…but this does not look like practice of Webster’s definition of strategy. More like an exercise in bidding time—an example al-Baghdadi and his budding caliphate are very likely to emulate. Let the modern armies retake Mosul and Raqqah.
The caliph is already chanting…”next year in Jerusalem.”
Life imitates Osiris.