Slogans Are Not Strategy

While it has often been said that hope is not a plan, neither is a slogan a strategy. That said, the fact that there is a slogan does not preclude the existence of a strategy, either.

Judd Legum thinks he has caught the administration in a whopper because both White House Counselor Dan Bartlett and President Bush said on the Sunday talk shows that “stay the course” has never been the strategy for fighting the war and that the means to achieving the end has been constantly evolving. Legum provides video evidence that Bush has used the words “stay the course” in reference to Iraq. [Update: Bilmon joins the chorus.]

It is fair to fault the administration and the State, DoD and CENTCOM planners over the years for failing to anticipate foreseeable events, for being too slow to adapt to changes, for being overly optimistic, and myriad other failures. It’s ridiculous, however, to pretend that campaign trail rhetoric represents the total depth of their strategic thinking.

“Stay the course” is bumper sticker shorthand for continuing to work toward accomplishing the mission for which we set out three and a half years ago, in contrast with various withdrawal plans floated by opposition leaders. It does not mean, nor has it ever meant, “continue doing exactly what we’re doing right now without any change.”

Indeed, anyone who has paid attention to the news over the last three years has seen a steady evolution of both the political goals and the means used in an attempt to achieve them.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ahh, but are slogans strategery?

    I think that saying “stay the course” means no changes is a straight jacket you wouldn’t want the president to wear no matter what party or your position on the war. I feel that stay the course meant trying to win in Iraq (establish an alternate political model in the middle east which over time can reduce terrorism’s appeal. That is the strategy. The tactics for how that should best be accomplished should be no more static than the tactics of those who oppose us.

  2. Just Me says:

    I think the people trying to call “lie” on this are taking the phrase “stay the course” a little too literally.

    I see “stay the course” pretty much the way you do-you keep the same goals in mind, but you adapt the course to the events that come.

  3. anselm says:

    uh, I think adaptability, or lack thereof, have been one of the central sticking points in the administration’s approach to Iraq. The admin has not used “stay the course” as a convenient slogan, but as a strategy. It has contrasted any call from adaptation – be it increasing troops, “redeployment”, withdrawal, redistribution within Iraq – from “staying the course”.

    Your reluctance to gloat along with the liberal blogs over this relatively semantic shift is understandable. But “stay the course” has been a strategy, and the slogan has been wielded for quite a while to beat back suggestions of a change in strategy. Therefore, I think Bush’s correction/revision of his position up to now is significant, if somewhat inexplicable.

  4. lily says:

    It’s a lie not because it is a slogan but because the idea behind the slogan is about to be contradicted. Bush is headed for a timed withdrawal which is the opposite of staying until something is won. The plan he is heading for calls for dates for certain accomplishments and threats if the accomplishments aren’t met–sort of “they don’t stand up, we leave” plan. It is very significant that he is rewriting history now to try to make it look like he never promised to stay committed.

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    I think in this case “stay the course” was also used to discourage every two bit congressman from trying to influence foreign policy through the media. Stay the course often meant stick to purpose and don’t sway with every news story.

    No one is rewriting history here. It may look that way if a person relied on mainstream media reports and didn’t look deeper into the war and it’s progress.

    Predicting what will happen isn’t planning either. We have plans that must constantly be amended but we also have goals that can stay the same over the long term.

  6. anjin-san says:

    So there has been a constant evolution in the strategy to fight the war, it’s just been utterly ineffective?

  7. civilbehavior says:

    65, yes, sixty five active duty soldiers will stand on Wednesday and officially ask Congress to end the war in Iraq.

    Soldiers will be asking Congress to no longer stay the course.

    Do you think these buttheads will listen to the soldiers strategy?

  8. Cernig says:

    Early yesterday morning – in a post at Newshog about how the few voices of 39 Senators who voted for a phased withdrawal from Iraq have become, by turns, a veritable Republican chorus headed by the Baker commission – I wrote that:

    The cynical among us realize, though, that the new name of the game now that “cut-and-run” has become the flavor of the month will be to ensure that no-one in the Bush administration has to admit their own personal “arrogance” and “stupidity” in staying the failing course for so long and making sure that the Republican base can at least have some plausible means of telling itself that Dear Leader hasn’t flip-flopped.

    I never dreamed that within 24 hours both Bush and Bartlett would prove the point so hamfistedly.

    I think the very centrist Joe Gandelman blogging at the Moderate Voice yesterday caught it just right.

    Question: How could anyone of any political party follow a leader like this? Abandoning a principle is one thing; denying you ever embraced it is another. The saddest part for American politics: On Monday you’ll witness influential talk show hosts insisting the administration never had a policy of “stay the course.” And some of their listeners will adjust their thinking accordingly.

    And here you and your rightwing commenters are today, James, proving Joe right.

    Regards, C

  9. Pug says:

    Republicans, and these commenters, are backpedaling so furiously it looks like they’re trying out to play cornerback. Unfortunately for them, they look like slow, white cornerbacks.

    Just weeks ago the Republicans planned on framing the whole mid-term election as “stay the course” vs. “cut-n-run”. Stay the course’s success was comparable to New Coke and it has been abandoned even by Bush.

    Now it’s just a matter of which “Baker Plan” Bush will end up supporting: John Murtha’s redeployment strategy or the Joe Biden’s partition strategy.It has been reported Baker is also considering installing a Saddam-style strong man. It is worth considering in a Kissingeresque, realpolitik sort of way.

  10. legion says:

    I think that saying “stay the course” means no changes is a straight jacket you wouldn’t want the president to wear no matter what party or your position on the war.

    YAJ, you’re quite right. Unfortunately, this is _exactly_ the strategy Bush and Rumsfeld have pushed the last few years. It has long been the admin position that any change to the method of the efforts in Iraq – even to simply adapting to the enemy’s changing efforts – would be tantamount to admitting failure. Just like planning for post-combat scenarios was considered ‘loser talk’.

    Trite sayings like ‘stay the course’ or ‘cut and run’ shouldn’t be strategy, but to Bush’s shallow thinking and unserious mind, that’s what they’ve become. And that’s why Iraq has become unwinnable – we may be staying the course, but (to use a trite saying of my own) there’s nobody at the wheel.

  11. LnGrrrR says:

    If “Stay the Course” only means to keep the same strategy, then why are they changing the terms? I don’t get why Repubs are saying, “Stay the course means adaptability and flexibility, and always has!” …because if that was the general impression, why would they change it?