Dueling with an Enemy That Moves
BSSB.BE https://www.stratfor.com 03.07.2015
Strategy is a two-way street. But many commentators act as though formulating a strategy is the same as solving a chess problem. Chess problems are artificially constructed arrangements on a chessboard where the goal is to find a series of moves that leaves the other side no room to evade a checkmate within three or four turns.
The sorts of conflicts bedeviling us these days, however, are more like the game of chess itself, in which there is no determinate, continuous series of moves that will guarantee victory every time. Each new contest depends on the actions of the other side, how we react to them, how they respond to our reactions, and so on.
The Triage of Terror
In my last column, I referred to the idea of the “triage of terror,” which I discuss further in my book, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century. The wars against terror comprise preventing transnational terrorist attacks, precluding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction for the purposes of compellence rather than deterrence, and protecting civilians from widespread depredation and destruction.
Unfortunately, progress in any one of the three theaters of conflict composing the wars on terror often increases the challenges we face in the other theaters. Managing the interrelationship of the three spheres of engagement in a way that prevents success in one arena from grossly exacerbating matters in another — the “triage of terror” — is an important objective of statecraft.
Strategies that attempt to root out terrorism are often linked to ethnic or sectarian repression or the aggressive repression of human rights. Understanding the consequences that success in one arena may have for the other wars on terror is a prerequisite for devising an effective strategy in the 21st century.
When asked on “Face the Nation” about the Obama administration’s commitment to the War on Terror, CIA Director John Brennan said,
There has been a full-court effort to try to keep this country safe. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, others, these are some of the most complex and complicated issues that I’ve seen in 35 years working on national security issues.
So there are no easy solutions. I think the president has tried to make sure that we’re able to push the envelope when we can to protect this country. But we have to recognize that sometimes our engagement and direct involvement will stimulate and spur additional threats to our national security interests.
Let me give a famous example of Parmenides’ Fallacy at work. The turning point in the United States’ 1980 presidential race came when Ronald Reagan criticized President Jimmy Carter’s record during a debate by asking the American people, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
Though rhetorically devastating, this question is hardly the way to evaluate a presidency. After all, the state of the nation will never stay the same for four years, regardless of who is in office. A more relevant question would have been, “Are you better off now than you would have been if Gerald Ford had remained the president and had had to cope with rising oil prices, the Iranian Revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and soaring interest rates?”
In the same way, we should reframe fallacious prospective questions like, “Will we be better off in five years than we are now if we adopt a certain policy?” The better question to ask is, “Will we be better off in five years by adopting this policy than we will be in five years if we do not?”
Real Strategy in Real Time
We are not necessarily harming national security when we take steps to counter threats that cause our enemies to react in a way that creates new threats. Everyone has a strategy, Mike Tyson famously said, until he gets punched in the mouth.
As another commentator recently observed, “if you look at the past 25 years or so, it is abundantly clear that external enemies have done far less damage to the United States than we have done to ourselves.” This confident assertion (“it is abundantly clear”) is not a clinching argument, indeed it is not an argument at all. It is merely a rhetorical flourish, and a rather indolent one at that.
To be an argument, we would have to know what damage our external enemies would have done to us and to our allies if we had not appropriated large sums for defense and intelligence, if we had not prevented the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Libya, and if we had not stopped the ethnic massacres in Europe.
If strategy is what we do, regardless of the actions of others, then there is an inevitable bias toward doing nothing, responding to challenges with a portentous silence. Like aphasia generally it is associated with trauma (like a stroke), and the trauma out of which this silence has emerged is the Vietnam War (for my generation) and perhaps the ill-fated intervention in Iraq for those of a younger age.
This attitude can be seen on yard signs and bumper stickers that read: “Stop War: Get out of ____” (fill in the blank: the Balkans, the Baltics, the Middle East). I suppose some people really do believe that if U.S. forces simply leave the field, conflict will abate (as it did in Vietnam after a good deal of political, religious, class and ethnic “cleansing” by Hanoi) and as may yet happen in Iraq should the war there lead to partition after a truly awful period of sectarian violence.
The irony is that while both these groups criticize U.S. policy for being “unilateralist,” they are united in advocating a policy that is unilateral in the extreme, for what act could be more autonomous than removing oneself from conflict regardless of the consequences for others?
The first group, who see the conspiratorial reflex of American militarism in every significant conflict around the world might wish to pause and ask themselves whether the world is really better for others—for the peoples of the world who don’t live in the United States—if violence is unchecked by U.S. intervention, for this group professes to be principally concerned about the welfare of other peoples even when American interests are at stake.
It should give them pause that polls consistently show that a large majority of Iraqis still support the regime change brought about by the American-led coalition, however angry they are about the feckless occupation that followed.
The second group, however, is my principal concern. Putting irony aside, one can’t help but notice that this perspective ignores the value of U.S. alliances, a value that distinguishes us from our principal potential adversaries in the world and which, in my view, is our greatest strategic asset. Real strategy is not just what we do, but it also encompasses more than what our adversaries do.
Real strategy is as much about our allies, our potential allies, our potential enemies, and the great body of states and peoples that could go either way.
The late Sir Michael Quinlan observed that in conflict we are always likely to be surprised. That is because we prepare our defenses for the attacks we anticipate and so inevitably drive our opponents to pursue the tactics and strategies against targets we have not foreseen.
We have been so often surprised these last several decades—sometimes happily so, oftentimes not—that it must be alluring to imagine that strategies of non-engagement at the least would spare us those surprises that haunt American policy. This is an enervated fantasy.
When we are disengaged—when we are not trying to prepare the field for potential conflict and preclude situations that put us at a disadvantage—every act that threatens us and our allies comes as a surprise.
Author: Philip Bobbitt
Philip Bobbitt is a leading constitutional theorist whose interests include international security and the history of military strategy. He currently serves on the faculties of Columbia Law School and the University of Texas, where he is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer, respectively. He has published eight books. His bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008). His most recent book is The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014).
Tags"triage of terror" a chess problem CIA Director ethnic massacres in Europe game of chess itself mass destruction security issues strategy Terror and Consent the Balkans the Baltics the Iranian Revolution the Middle East the proliferation of weapons the Russian invasion of Afghanistan The Wars for the Twenty-First Century victory
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