07/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Argues Strategy, McCain Argues Tactics

In Senator Obama's speech on foreign policy today in Washington D.C. called "A New Strategy for a New World", he demonstrated that he understands the role of strategy vs. tactics. But does McCain? Under fire from McCain for talking about Iraq before he visits there next week, Obama also demonstrated the he understands the role of a leader -- to lay out a strategy in broad principles and let the generals fill in the tactics to achieve that strategy.

The great Chinese General Sun Tzu knew the difference in 500 B.C. when he declared, "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Obama could not have described the difference between strategy and tactics more clearly than when he described the difference between himself and McCain -- "Senator McCain wants to talk of our tactics in Iraq; I want to focus on a new strategy for Iraq and the wider world," he said.

In his speech, Obama talked about the ways in which the tactical details of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan fit into a larger strategy of dealing with issues of terrorism in the region.

He laid out five very clear strategic goals for his proposed foreign policy:

I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Obama also delineated exactly how his strategy would interact with tactical adjustments:

We will make tactical adjustments as we implement this strategy -- that is what any responsible Commander-in-Chief must do. As I have consistently said, I will consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government. We will redeploy from secure areas first and volatile areas later. We will commit $2 billion to a meaningful international effort to support the more than 4 million displaced Iraqis. We will forge a new coalition to support Iraq's future -- one that includes all of Iraq's neighbors, and also the United Nations, the World Bank, and the European Union -- because we all have a stake in stability. And we will make it clear that the United States seeks no permanent bases in Iraq.

McCain, on the other hand, responded mainly in tactical terms -- "I know how to win a war" he said. Yes, the "how to" is important. But the "what to do" is even more important. Americans may not be too familiar with the differences between strategy and tactics, subjected as we have been for the past eight years to the "strategery" of George Bush's administration, which has been a series of actions taken without a greater strategy in mind. The Surge itself was a tactic, not a strategy, and as a tactic it appears to have reduced violence. What Obama did today was to put the Surge into the wider context of a foreign policy strategy American desperately needs to implement.