How Dangerous Is the Strategy that Obama Learned from Saul Alinsky’s "Rules for Radicals"?

While Obama worked as a community organizer, he taught Saul Alinsky’s Power Theory. Alinski was the father of community organizing who wrote a book on strategy called Rules for Radicals. Science of Strategy Institute has done an analysis of Alinski’s work and its influence on President Obama. As the world’s leading non-profit membership organization devoted to strategy, The Institute has come to the following conclusions:

  1. As his rapid rise to power demonstrates, President Obama exposure to Alinski has given him a better than average understanding of strategic methods.
  2. These methods are dangerously flawed because Alinski’s Power Theory was based on a fundamental error: that economic power is based on political power.
  3. For at least 2,500 the years, traditional strategy has proven time and again that the opposite is true: political power must be based on economic power.

Obama’s grasp of strategic technique and confusion about the basis of power could easily create a popular president who is able to successfully promote disastrous policies.  

There are a number of parallels with the Art of War and Alinski's Rules for Radicals. Much of it is simplistic (and totally “hip”) restatement of a few of the top 44 principles of traditional strategy.  A few however, are what we call,  “rules of the ground” that apply only to a given competitive arena. While all competition follows all our warrior's rules, every competitive arena, football games, politics, 20th century war, and 21st century war, also have their own rules of the ground. We have listed the 12 rules below with their connection (or lack of it) to traditional strategy.

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." This is just a restatement the subjective/objective nature of positions and how you leverage the subjective to obtain the objective.

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." Another limited restatement of idea of moving into nearby ground, which our trainer Allan posted about here recently.

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Just the reverse of the above issue. This idea of "expertise" as the battlefield is the core of Sun Tzu's strategy, that the real battle is in the mind, which we are getting into deeply in our current TAOSR posts.

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." This is one of those a "rules of the ground" that I mentioned before. This only works when the battlefield is modern US politics where media coverage is the issue.

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." Another rule of the ground for political, media, warfare. Do not try this on any other form of competition. 

RULE 6: "A good tactic is one your people enjoy." Another rule of the ground, especially tailored for the self-centered members of radical movements. While competition can be great fun, most of the fun is in winning not self-gratification. 

RULE 7: "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." Just a sadly hip version of "speed is the essence of war."

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Just a restatement of Sun Tzu's rules of focus and persistence and using all your resources in a fight. However, in this form, this rule ignores costs or the return on effort issue.

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." This is another restatement of the use of the chaos of the battlefield to create a fear of the unknown. I will actually be writting on this topic this evening in my TASR article.

RULE 10: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." This is a very insightful observation regarding the rules of complementary opposites: how one opposite creates the other. The role of complementary opposites in competition is one of the most non-intuitive and sophisticated ideas in traditional strategy. It is very impressive to see it here among what is, until now, a list of sophmoric ideas.

RULE 11: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." This is another very sophisticated idea referring to complementary opposites. Competition wins resources that must be used in production. Production must pay for the cost of competition.

RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." The idea is pure Sun Tzu's strategy and a restatement of listen, aim, move, claim progress cycle. It tailors the cycles to the idea splitting up your enemies and isolating them, what people know commonly as "divide and conquer." 

As far as the use of these ideas by Obama and his supporters, it isn't hard to think of examples, but since most of these rules embody key elements of good strategy, that is not necessarily a bad thing, at least in terms of methods.

The question is about Obama's and his supporters goals and motivations. If the goal is to destroy Western civilization under the guise of destroying evil corporations, that would obviously be a very bad thing.

A reader spawned this release asking: 

The ascendancy of Barack Obama to the American presidency has brought new focus onto the tactics and apparent successes of radical political activism in the mid-to-late 20th century, particularly as encapsulated in the work and legacy of such figures as Saul Alinski, whose 1970's masterwork "Rules for Radicals" has recently gained new publicity through references by such current public figures as Rush Limbaugh. A perusal of Alinski's "Rules" makes a few things quite apparent: First and foremost, the principles of strategy are universal truisms. I don't know whether Alinski studied Sun Tsu's work, but many of his "Rules" are clearly derived from the strategic principles inculcated by Tsu's "Art of War".

Secondly, I don't know whether either Tsu's "Art of War" or Alinski's "Rules" are part of the Islamic jihadist's standard-issue combat kit, but both - and perhaps especially Alinski's rules - are clearly recognizable in the teachings, activities and tactics both during Mohommed's ascendancy in the 7th century and the teachings of Islam, and in the ongoing modern-day jihad, in both it's combative, terroristic, and "from inside the enemy's "tent" stealth modes.

If there is hope either for the survival of the classical Western Roman-Greco Judeo-Christian and politically "conservative" traditions and principles of limited and restrained government, individual liberty and simple human dignity, or for the historically unique exceptionalism of the American "experiment" in self-government and a self-soveriegn citizenry, it may be in Sun Tsu's teaching that the elements of successful strategy MUST ultimately be unified by a "right" philosophy.With respect to Alinsky's lifetime crusade "against government and large corporations", it will be interesting to see how his principles play out in the current era, now that ardent students and followers of his tactics ARE the institutions against which their strategies and tactics were previously aligned.

Two questions for Gary: Are you familiar with Alinsky's work as it relates to the study of strategy, and what are your thoughts on the parallels between the "Art of War", modern radical movements, Islamic jihadism, and the implications for the future given the apparent and fundamental political and philosophical leanings of Obama and his supporters, admirers, and enablers? Thought it would make a good blog post!

Regards, Chris Nelson-Jeffers, Wausau Wisconsin

First, very interesting question, Chris.


As far as the connection to jihad, these have more to do with the rules of the ground . Fourth generation, asynchronous war is based on the idea that wars are fought in the media, which is a very new reality. In a sense, you are right: both the terror war and the radical wars are outgrowth of switch to the media battlefield. A topic I cover extensively in my book Strategy Against Terror.