February 22, 2018

Blue Whales and Tiger Sharks: Politics, Policy, and the Military Operational Artist


G. Stephen Lauer 

 February 20, 2018

"The greatest service they can render is to remain true to themselves, to serve with silence and courage in the military way."
— Samuel Huntington [1]


Iraq and Afghanistan. Korea and Vietnam. The uniquely unhappy political nature of wars of limited policy aims after the Second World War and into the 21st century finds the United States military unable to disengage after intervention without the perception of defeat.[2] Without a committed local and legitimate political stakeholder, military force cannot forge the necessary political outcome. Without the legitimate local political capability to accept and advance U.S. policy objectives, the space and time created by military intervention cannot succeed. and extract itself. This perception of failure lies in an inability to reconcile the different lenses through which the politician as policymaker, and the military operational artist, view their respective roles and responsibilities in intervention. The politician as blue whale, ponderous, inevitable in direction and weight within the American system of government, employs the military as tiger sharks, slow to engage, but deadly, aggressive, and swift when unleashed to apply a violent resolution to policy. The metaphor allows the illumination of not only different species, but different orders, political and military, who, while swimming in the same medium—politics—often find themselves in a fundamental misunderstanding of their respective roles.

It is the responsibility of the politician as the policy maker to determine the political outcome to which the military will apply its nature—in this case, the violent resolution of limited political aims. From initial political expression as a policy aim for the use of military force, there exists a continuing dialogue, a holistic connection, from policymaker to military actor, wherein political aims translate to military aims and actions that reverberate back to politics in perceptions of political success and failure. Describing where and when that interface occurs is the purpose of this article. The intent is to locate the primary points of discourse, the principal influences at each point, and the outcomes at each node. Thus the focus here is on the essential negotiation, the discourse, between the political and the operational. How does a political question translate into a policy for the use of military force in the limited wars of the 21st century?

The type and form of the military response to policy cannot be to simply be brave in the face of the politics that order limited military action. The responsibility for the lives of those tasked to carry out the order leads to a requirement for military engagement in this discourse at the earliest opportunity in the negotiations prior to the policy decision for military employment. There is no operational distinction between shirking or working as Peter Feaver noted in his application of agency theory to U.S. civilian-military relations, but there is a political separation of the spheres of responsibility between the civilian policymaker and the military instrument.[3] The implementation of force falls to the military operational artist—the designated commander of the forces intended to secure a US policy objective. It is this military commander who receives both the authority to assign tasks to the tactical forces, the means, and the ways in which those employed will achieve the aim. The operational artist holds the fundamental responsibility for the accomplishment of the military aim in accordance with an overall policy objective, while recognizing that political oversight and guidance does not end with the order initiating military action.[4]

There is no simply waiting for policy. There is no simply military advice. Carl von Clausewitz noted the reason for the subordination of all military operations to the political point of view was that “the supreme standpoint for the conduct of war, the point of view that determines its main lines of action, can only be that of policy.”[5] In the wars of the 21st century, Huntington’s formulation required an essential military passivity in the face of a policy determination to order military forces into action, and failed to account for the dynamic and holistic relationship that exists between the political aim, its policy formulation, and the execution of that policy by the military.


The wars of the United States with a political object of final victory, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Second World War as examples, and wars with a limited political objective as in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have divergent political and military logic and characteristics. An absolute war, fighting for the existence of the state, fought with the entirety of societal, industrial, and political intent to attain final peace by military force has a readily observable logic. As Clausewitz noted in reviewing the history of wars of this kind, one step from the beginning follows upon the next, despite the vicissitudes of temporal changes in perceptions of battlefield success and failure, to arrive at an apparently inevitable conclusion of either victory or defeat.[6] The closer the military aim to the political in wars with an absolute aim, he wrote, the more the aims will seem to coincide, and in wars of lesser political aims, the more will the two aims diverge and the political dominate.[7]

Logic, War, and the Aim Gap in Limited War

Clausewitz noted that wars with a limited political aim do not offer the simple logic of wars with an absolute aim. Wars of limited aim drive a specific and limited military effort. The existence of the state is not at risk. These wars of policy, or wars of choice, change constantly based upon political and policy perceptions of tactical victory and defeat, success and failure. Today these wars are mitigated through a media lens often at odds with the policy itself. These wars are ostensibly to preserve the way of life of the state. There is a continual and often fundamental re-evaluation of the political aims and military effort that does not generally occur in wars with an absolute aim. Thus limited aims demand a consistent and powerful war narrative in substitution of the logic of an absolute aim. The narrative explains the cost to society in terms that allow the policy to go forward when perceptions driven by actions on the battlefield—casualties most powerfully—compel changes to policy that force modifications and the continuous reevaluation and constraint of the military effort.[8]

The misunderstanding of this dynamic in wars of limited aim is fundamental to the failure of policymaker and military operational artist to arrive at a common understanding in operational matters. Feaver and Huntington essentially arrive at the same conclusion: the military must simply follow the political orders and policy of its civilian leadership or be accused of fomenting a coup at worst, or at the least, shirking their duties.[9] While for both authors, as for Clausewitz, the military, as subordinate, is responsible for making the relationship work; if theory demands the simple acquiescence of the military, there can be no creativity nor critical analysis of the military options before the policy is ordered into effect.[10]


The model represents the locations where the political and policy aims interact with, and are affected by, military considerations, constraints, and their interaction in operations where the policy comes into contact with the free will of an adversary. This is the space where politically aware military advice comes to the fore to ensure the likelihood that limited military force can create the physical and temporal space for the execution of the political outcome.[11] This implies that the military professional has an understanding of the politics of the environment under which a policy determination occurs, without the requirement, or fear, of being political.[12] Highlighting the locations and outcomes for this political, policy, and operational dialogue, it does not describe the official or doctrinal decision-making processes that end in military orders to move units to implement a declared policy. Further, while the process appears to move forward from a firm political beginning, its holistic nature means that the interaction between nodes is complex, continuous, and dynamic in perceptions of progress and results.

The Process and Resolution of Politically-Aware Military Advice[13]


The political process begins with a question. The question may be a new development, such as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, or the sudden attack by the North Korean Army on June 25, 1950. It may be a new administration reviewing an older problem as in the example of Iraq in 2003, or Afghanistan in 2009, with a new military operational artist asking for a review of the current policy direction. In limited wars, the policy review may be a media-driven crisis that challenges the legitimacy of the ongoing narrative and current perceptions of victory and defeat, especially the question of casualties, as in Iraq during 2007. Each case demonstrates the lack of direct logic in these wars. Aims change with perceptions, not necessarily with reality. In this space, the nature of military advice is politically aware. Politically aware military advice does not mean to bend dialogue to a political party perspective, but to understand the political constraints under which a limited aim policy comes into being, and to provide a range of distinct and feasible military options that support the full scope of policy options under discussion.

Knowing how the policymaker views his or her political and policy risk, individual political preferences and those of their supporting political coalitions, guides the self-limitation of military options.[14] The policymaker creates a narrative that drives the public perception of the legitimacy of a proposed policy aim, especially in an intervention.[15] The first, and arguably the most important, location to overcome the misunderstanding between the policymaker and operational artist is the dialogue that requires the engagement of the military prior to the declaration of policy. This discourse includes the whole of government power in the principal institutions of the White House, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the intelligence community and others dependent on the nature of the problem question. Beyond the political leadership of the Department of Defense, other likely participants include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs as appropriate, as well as the regional Combatant Commander or theater commander. While the focus here is on the perceptions of the policymaker, each actor at this node brings personal and institutional biases and goals to create ever greater complexity in this discourse. The outcome of this exchange of ideas is a policy decision that includes the role of military force.[16] What is the political resolution the policy seeks? Upon what local, legitimate political stakeholder does the military solution support and for which its execution of violence will provide temporal and political space—the end that will allow the departure of U.S. military forces upon accomplishment? This is fundamentally and necessarily a political responsibility.

Here the narrative has the potential to confuse or to blind the parties to the essence of the political problem as in the legitimacy of the entity for whom intervention occurs. Daniel Kahneman’s concept of theory-induced blindness may provide a useful lens for analysis of the theory of the narrative which justifies the use of military violence.[17] Containment of communism was the narrative that justified the legitimacy of both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. In each case, the political legitimacy of the local polity was subsumed under the grander vision of the narrative, denying the context of what would follow the intervention. American intervention in Vietnam, for example, created a similar blindness to the powerful constraints to the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government in the eyes of its own people.[18] The Global War on Terror created the same blindness to local political legitimacy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply put, the locals did not appear to matter in the grand scheme of American narrative legitimacy for intervention. Only when it was belatedly discovered that such local legitimacy could not be achieved was the military committed to a never-ending attempt to provide the political solution to the intervention, especially in the especially in the military strategy of counterinsurgency that emerged from these conditions.[19]

The second dialogue location occurs once the policymaker’s decision passes to the designated military operational artist intended to achieve the aim through military action. This officer has the both the authority and responsibility to negotiate for the military means required. Decisions on the military aim and the specific means needed for its accomplishment are the outcomes of this discourse. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for example, continues this negotiation for means through the many changes in aims and political and military strategies across the seventeen years of the intervention there.[20] In the major U.S. military interventions after the Second World War, the demonstration of this negotiation for the military aim and means lies in the direct interaction between the operational artist and the policymaker. This relationship appeared between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur in Korea, Generals William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams with Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, respectively, General David Petraeus in Iraq and each of the Afghanistan commanders with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.[21] In all of the above cases, the specific means to achieve the policy aim resulted, often painfully, in an agreed determination of the military aim, and a decision on the size, scope, constraints as rules of engagement, the mission tasks of the means, the ways, and the emergent strategy to achieve the stated policy.[22]

General of the Army MacArthur shakes hands with President Truman at the Wake Island Conference. (Wikimedia)

The current re-negotiation and policy determination of the Trump Administration occurs in this same manner, with General John W. Nicholson. Jr., the Afghanistan theater of war commander, directly involved with the policy determination to add as many as four thousand more U.S. military personnel.[23] As the number of soldiers appears as a simply politically determined number, disconnected from the ongoing military campaign, it serves as an example of the failure to recognize the blurring of roles and responsibility between the blue whale and his tiger sharks. Again, increased U.S. military force in the seventeenth year of the war intends to provide additional space and time for the development of a locally legitimate political entity that can carry forward US policy aims, and allow the withdrawal of the bulk of American and NATO combat forces.

The third location is the fundamental military command relationship established with the component air, naval, and ground forces, and allied organizations that determine the specific tactical forces and roles of each in coordinated action. The campaign plan, the specific expression of the emergent strategy is the outcome of this discourse, and which is in its turn the result of further negotiations between the operational artist and the components (land, air, naval, special operations, cyber, etc.). In Afghanistan today, for example, negotiations for ultimate tactical employment in terms of time, space, force, purpose, and rules of engagement, occur not only with US service components, but also with each of the respective national command authorities committing forces, including the host nation, and in the case of NATO deployed forces, the overall constraints of the NATO collective command.[24] Only once these operational level deployments and roles are decided and coordinated with the emergent strategy as expressed in the campaign plan are combat missions assigned by components to their tactical military formations. Thus, strategy emerges in this process. Strategy is not stated beforehand, and it is not synonymous with policy, but finds its confluence in the military aim.[25]

When these tactical organizations then come into the physical discourse of combat, the contact and resolution of tactical actions with the opposing will of the adversary occurs. In limited war, one important way the outcome of combat action appears is in the perceptions driven by the press and social media of military success and failure against the opponent. Here, asymmetric adversaries against whom the U.S. pits its military forces in intervention benefit “from the progressive attrition of their opponents' political capability to wage war. In such asymmetric conflicts, insurgents may gain political victory from a situation of military stalemate or even defeat.”[26] These perceptions, in confirming the holistic and political nature of all military action down to the tactical outcomes, create a feedback loop that links directly to the political and policy perceptions of risk to the policymaker. These risks manifest themselves in challenges to the legitimacy of the policy narrative, driving public perceptions of limited war aims, especially in regards to casualties. The nature of limited wars and the lack of a consistent logic manifests itself here in the outcome of changing political and policy aims, and leads again to the re-negotiation of the aims, both political and military.


Operations in Panama in 1989 and Kuwait in 1990-91 offer examples of the successful application of military violence to achieve a declared policy aim that allowed for the rapid removal of most U.S. military forces upon completion of operations. In Panama, Manuel Noriega’s nullification of election results provided the United States with a legitimate, local political stakeholder upon restoration, establishing an entity to hand U.S. policy preferences upon completion of the destruction of the Panama Defense Forces in a matter of days.[27]

President George H.W. Bush addresses reporters on Aug. 22, 1990, flanked by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell. (Jerome Delay/AFP/Getty Images)

In the creation of the coalition to first deter and then to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, the legitimate, local Kuwaiti political elite were prepared to carry forward an alliance and U.S. policy goals upon the destruction of Iraqi forces and restoration of their governance. In both Panama and Kuwait, the presence of a legitimate local political power allowed the limited application of U.S., and in the case of Kuwait, allied military power. With the U.S. and allied policy aim achieved, legitimate government was restored, and, as in Korea in 1953, a post-conflict alliance allowed the bulk of US military forces to depart.[28]

This is not a new insight. In a 1977 analysis, failure of U.S. policy in Vietnam “resulted from trying to substitute military force for effective government.”[29] Former Under Secretary of State George Ball testified before Congress in 1985 that success of U.S. policy in intervention entailed the necessity for such a locally legitimate government capable of carrying forward the weight of US policy objectives in intervention.[30]


Two key thoughts emerge from this discussion. First, it is the responsibility of the policymaker when considering a policy of military intervention to determine the identities of the intended local, legitimate political stakeholders to be supported. Second, it is the military responsibility to advise how its application of violence realistically provides the physical and temporal space for the proposed local political solution, allowing the military to be withdrawn, without the need for a never-ending commitment of forces and casualties. Clausewitz noted that the entire phenomenon of war is embedded in politics. If policy does not provide the political solution, then no military resolution exists.

Since 1945, whenever U.S. policy in intervention confronted a lack of politically legitimate local stakeholders, no violent military solution appeared possible at any level. This is in keeping with the logic of wars of limited aim and their constantly changing goals. Impressions of victory and defeat continuously involve and influence the politics that led to the policy aim. Today’s long wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and increasingly in the U.S. military involvement in and around Syria’s civil war, demonstrate a failure of the political resolution for which the U.S. military acts. Lacking an attainable political end, the blue whales find the need to continually keep the tiger sharks in action. Without this understanding as we confront the many challenges to U.S. policy aims, we may find ourselves, again, in exactly the wrong kind of limited wars, using limited means—wars that have no fundamental or achievable political aim—with the only option a continuing and bleeding military application for which no end appears.

G. Stephen Lauer is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps Officer and served as the first Chief of Florida Domestic (Homeland) Security from 2001 to 2004. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 456.

[2] G. Stephen Lauer, “American Discontent: The Unhappy Outcomes of US Military Operations in the Post-Second World War Era,” The Strategy Bridge, 23 May 2017.

[3] Peter D. Feaver, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 56.

[4] G. Stephen Lauer, “Tao of Doctrine: Contesting an Art of Operations,” Joint Forces Quarterly no. 82, July 2016, 122.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans.by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 606-07.

[6] Clausewitz, On War, 582.

[7] Ibid., 88.

[8] Jeffrey J. Kubiak, War Narratives and the American National Will in War (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 158-61.

[9] Feaver, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations, 302.

[10] Clausewitz, 607. Here Clausewitz makes the broad assumption that “policy knows the instrument it means to use.”

[11] Mikah Zenko, Between Threats and War: US Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 29; Rapp, William E., “Civil-Military Relations: The Role of Military Leaders in Strategy Making,” Parameters 45, no. 3 (Autumn 2015): 13-26. Zenko credits the term “politically aware military advice” to Dr. Kevin Benson, Colonel, US Army (retired) from a conversation in 2008, ff. no. 58. Dr. Benson noted that he first heard the term used in this context, while the Director of the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies, by British Army Colonel Richard Irons in a conversation during 2004 (Conversation with the author 7 December 2017).

[12] Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, 83.

[13] Created by the author, including input from Major Lynn W. Sullivan, USA, and Dr. Jeffrey J. Kubiak.

[14] Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 260, 293-94; Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42 No.3 (1988): 432, 459-60; and, Alan C. Lamborn, “Theory and the Politics in World Politics,” International Studies Quarterly 41, No. 2 (1997): 190-197.

[15] Kubiak, War Narratives and the American National Will in War, 17-39.

[16] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 247-48; Janine Davidson, “Explaining the Broken Dialogue,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 43, no. 1 (March 2013): 129-145; and Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 22-25. Each author addresses uniquely the condition of an “unequal dialogue” between the military and political leaders and solutions for resolving the nature of military advice in the contemporary context of limited wars in the 21st century.

[17] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 279, 287.

[18] Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 361-364; and, Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Last Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 25.

[19] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 10-11; and, Terry H. Anderson, “9/11 Bush’s Response,” in Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, eds. Beth Bailey and Richard H. Immerman (New York: NYU Press, 2015), 54-55.

[20] Gordon Lubold, Eli Stokols, and Peter Nicholas, “Trump Takes New Tack in Afghanistan Fight,” The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2017.

[21] Robert Gates, Duty, 38-49, 349-363; Allen R. Millett, The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010), 124-25, 282-83; Gregory A. Daddis, Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 69-73, 126.

[22] Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York: The Free Press, 1994), Figure 1-1, 25.

[23] Lubold, et.al., “Trump Takes New Tack in Afghanistan Fight,” The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2017.

[24] Gates, Duty, 477-78. For NATO, and U.S. Marine Corps negotiations.

[25] Strachan, The Direction of War, 43; Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 241-244; and Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18. All three authors stress the necessity for clear definitions between the terms policy, strategy, operations, and tactics.

[26] Andrew Mack, “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict,” World Politics 27, No. 2 (Jan., 1975), 177. [emphasis in original]

[27] Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 84, 161-170 (Panama).

[28] Ibid., 260-77 (Kuwait).

[29] Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Lessons and Legacies of the War in Afghanistan,” in Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, eds. Beth Bailey and Richard H. Immerman (New York: NYU Press, 2015), 323. Quoted from: W. Scott Thompson and Donaldson D. Frizzell, eds., The Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Crane, Russak, 1977), iv.

[30] Ibid. Quoted from: House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, “The Lessons of Vietnam, 99th Congress 1st Session, April 29, 1985” (Washington, DC: GPO, 1986) 26. George Ball noted this requirement as “a well-defined country, a national will to defend it, and a political structure through which that will is expressed, which means, in turn, a government that is neither corrupt nor oppressive … We must be certain there is a solid political base strong enough to support the weight of our support, since for us to create a base by pulling and bribing and cajoling native politicians into building an effective government may well be beyond our means

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