Palpatine should have been able to take it easy. He not only managed to gain absolute power over the galactic civilization, but the Senate had begged him to take control. The Jedi had been, for all intents and purposes, exterminated. Nothing should have crossed his desk besides trade disputes, the occasional bill to name a library after him, and pleas for mercy from various alien races. Instead he had this damned rebellion on his hands. His right hand man was a whiney asthmatic who couldn’t even be trusted to find two droids that used to belong to him on his own home planet. Palpatine’s a politician. He doesn’t know the first thing about military strategy. Neither does Darth Wheezey McEmo over there. What’s a Sith to do?
You find someone in your organization with vision and strategic acumen. In Palpatine’s case, that person is Moff Milhuff Tarkin. Tarkin’s a man with a plan. He thinks that Palpatine should rule through fear of force rather than force itself. Tarkin understands deterrence. This is a man that recognizes that the Empire cannot kill its way to victory, but it can intimidate. This is counterinsurgency and stability through deterrence, based on a credible, overwhelming threat. That credible, overwhelming threat is the Death Star. Palpatine’s promotion of Moff Tarkin to Grand Moff, an entirely new rank, is evidence that 1) Palpatine recognized that Tarkin had a strategic vision and 2) the Empire heretofore lacked a military strategic vision. Palpatine rose to power through Machievellian politics and deception rather than military force. He didn’t defeat the Jedi clone army, he co-opted it. He defeated the Jedi through betrayal and deception, a skill set that may not work in the face of a galaxy-wide insurgency.
Palpatine, at some level, must recognize this as Tarkin, during the events of A New Hope, is the Stonewall Jackson to Papatine’s Robert E. Lee. Yes, Vader is present on the Death Star but he’s not in charge. Tarkin gives the order to destroy Alderaan after all. All Vader does is torture a prisoner and then reacts to the rebel assault by joining the fight himself. Both tactical level actions. Tarkin is clear-headed and cool the entire time. He never flinches as he destroys a civilization as an example while Vader is chasing after a presence he hasn’t felt in a long time and angrily taking off in his TIE fighter. Palpatine found the right man for the job, until those pesky rebels blew him up.
The strategic and operational competency vacuum left by the death of Tarkin is evident immediately upon the opening events of The Empire Strikes Back. The Imperial Starfleet arrives at Hoth too far away from the planet, leaving the rebels time to organize their evacuation. Then, rather than simply bombard the rebel base from orbit, they launch a planetside assault on the base. Sure, there was a shield generator protecting the base, but the ground assault occurred in the complete absence of suppressive fire from the Starfleet. Turbolasers may not destroy Echo Base outright, but it can keep the Rebels’ heads down long enough for the ground assault to breach their perimeter or, better yet, besiege the base. These are JV-level mistakes when it comes to coordinating forces. Fire without maneuver is a waste. Maneuver without fire is suicide. In this case, it’s total mission failure. The rebellion lives on while the entire fleet completely bungles a mission to capture HVTs. The fleet performs so poorly that Vader has to turn to contractors to capture rebel leadership for them.
It’s hard to believe that Tarkin, a man whose military acumen so impressed the Emperor that a new rank was created just for him, would not have foreseen these mistakes and better handled the Imperial Starfleet. Vader’s reactive leadership style (failure followed by force choke) was unable to cope with rapidly changing situations. Vader let his personal goals and passions get in the way of strategic and operational demands. He couldn’t bombard Echo Base because he wanted to capture Luke and turn him to the Dark Side. Tarkin, unencumbered by a hokey religion, the need for an apprentice, or sentiment of any kind, would have ended the rebellion on Hoth.
Which leads to my next point: Palpatine and Vader, just like the Jedi, are strategic incompetents. The resources of the vast Empire are directed not firstly to the defeat of the rebellion but rather to the capture of Luke Skywalker, a super-empowered religious extremist from a desert wasteland who has great symbolic value but no real command and control over the movement that he is a part of (yes, I went there). When Palpatine describes his theory of victory to Luke on the second Death Star over Endor, the defeat of the rebel fleet is barely a postscript to Luke’s fall to the Dark Side. The Empire is clearly operating without a coherent strategy as their ends are confused. Nor did Palpatine produce any useful policy that would serve to better prioritize the strategic ends. The severe lack of a healthy separation of church and state wasted Imperial resources.
Tarkin, of course, would not have let this happen. Palpatine obviously had great trust in the Grand Moff and, had he lived, the Emperor could have delegated the military fight against the rebellion to the true military mastermind while turning to the Imperial intelligence or special forces communities to hunt down Luke Skywalker. Either that, or Tarkin’s coolness, vision, and competency would have allowed him to execute a coup d’etat that would depose the distracted and arrogant pair of Sith. This, actually, would not have been too bad of an outcome for the galaxy. While Palpatine is prone to rule through force, Tarkin intends to rule through the threat of force. This would have first required the destruction of Alderaan, the execution of Princess Leia, and the destruction of Hoth, but after that years of peace could have followed. Surely this was a bad outcome for the rebellion and George Lucas’ merchandise sales, but the people of the galaxy would have seen peace. Instead, when the only competent strategist in the entire Star Wars galaxy dies at Yavin, decades of civil strife follow. (If you follow the Expanded Universe anyway.)