Western Strategy is Bankrupt

In chapter 33 of The 33 Strategies of War I expounded what I think is a somewhat novel idea and theory about terrorism. The great debate, particularly after 9/11, was whether we were entering a new phase of terrorism, or whether 9/11 was just another example of what is known as conventional terrorism. The general consensus was that 9/11 was a more devastating attack than others in the past, but did not represent a qualitative leap to something new and different. Such a leap would have to include some kind of super weapon, nuclear or biological, which would so up the stakes of the confrontation that the terrorists could demand much more. My argument was that we had already entered a new phase of terrorism and that 9/11 is the first real example of it.

It goes back to my argument, stated in chapter 33, that terrorism has different goals than classical or conventional warfare. A terrorist is desperate by nature, small in number, and is attempting to create as much chaos and disorder as possible. They face situations that are extremely static: a great power, or some kind of hegemony. Their terrorist acts are designed to break up the stalemate, to cause a chain-reaction effect that they can exploit. They are rarely aware of what exact direction this chaos might take, but that does not mean they are not being strategic. Au contraire, terrorism is extremely strategic, and in this new phase, quite effective.

We have entered a new phase because the globe has become so interconnected, so tightly woven. One attack in one corner of the West can set off a massive chain reaction that has profound rippling effects on business, politics, even culture. I make the case in the book that no single act of war or attack has ever had such an overwhelming effect on the world as 9/11, and I enumerate these effects. (One might argue that the attack on Hiroshima might be equivalent or larger, and there would be much to say about that.)

I wrote this chapter thinking I would get a reaction from the media. I wanted to provoke the debate a little, a debate I saw as extremely stale and uninteresting. It is my contention that strategy in the West is totally bankrupt. People are hardly capable of thinking things anew. So I presented a theory I believe in, but stated in a way to get a reaction. As of yet, I have not received any response to my theory, perhaps because I do not write for some think tank, or there is no elaborate title before my name.

In the West, so much of our theories on war are so conventional and so linear. We tend to radically divorce politics from warfare, seeing them as very distinct, and occasionally intersecting. Those who use terrorism or guerrilla warfare understand that war is politics by other means. They are extremely political in their own way. The terrorism that is evolving now is perfectly calibrated to attacking Western democracies, just as Gandhi’s strategy was perfectly calibrated to liberal British politics.

Terrorists understand that western democracies have certain limitations. The public generally has little taste for big-scale wars in which lots of lives might be lost. They have little taste for wars that would have to last several years to have any effect. They know that a politician in power must consider his response to a terrorist attack in terms of his own political situation. He must play to the public and perhaps do something dramatic in the short-term, but cannot take action designed for the long run, because election cycles do not allow this. They know that politicians come and go in the West and that every four years a new party can totally alter the situation. The terrorists can think long term, while we can only respond in the short term. This is an asymmetry of power that is rarely discussed–that of time.

Furthermore, we in the West only tend to think in terms of conventional warfare even when we think we are talking about the unconventional. A case in point: to us, war must have clear objectives, this objective generally being victory on the battlefield. But this is nonsense. There can be all kinds of objectives that have nothing to do with conventional victories on the battlefield. Seen in the western light, it is hard to understand what Osama bin Laden is after. If he wants to take over the middle east, well, he seems to be failing in that light. But terrorists can have a different objective: namely to create and exploit chaos, to stir things up and rewrite a stalemated situation. Their goals can be limited, or even vague, without making them ineffective.

Another case was the Yom Kippur War in which the Arabs successfully launched a surprise attack on Israel, but eventually were pushed back on several fronts and defeated. Although Israeli military officials were chastised for allowing this surprise, they were generally credited with using an effective strategy to counter this attack. What was not considered was the fact that the Arabs in this war knew they could not defeat Israel militarily. (Sadat later admitted this.) They did not have the weapons or the armies. They wanted to demonstrate to the public that Israel was vulnerable, not this monolithic beast that could not be challenged. In the Arab world this war was seen as a turning point in morale and it has been so ever since. It is a great mistake to not understand the strategy of your enemy, but equally bad is to misread its intentions, its objectives. Sometimes it is not to gain territory or win set-piece battles. Sometimes battles, wars, attacks have political purposes that play out over time. We seem blind to this possibility.

The terrorists in Al Qaeda and their networks faced a situation in the Middle East that was locked into place, in which change on their terms was virtually impossible. There was Israel, there was the United States behind Israel, and there were the secular regimes like Saudi Arabia, et al. Nothing could be pushed or changed. They set off a massive chain-reaction effect with their attack on 9/11. Suddenly an American army is not only pushing through Afghanistan, but now invading Iraq. At that point, they have reached their goals. The stalemate in the Middle East is altered. The cards can be reshuffled.

We think we are doing this for the same effect, to spread democracy. But in fact, we are playing exactly into their hands. This may not lead precisely to what Osama bin Laden wants in the long run–a return of the caliphate and the unification of the Muslim world. But that is being Western in our outlook–anything short of reaching such goals is seen as a failure. Instead, success here is to break up the stalemate and create disorder. We misread their intentions, their strategy, and we respond in precisely the ways that feed their demonic power. Strategy in the West is utterly bankrupt.

This is the history of warfare in a nutshell: one side develops a strategy that is very successful and brings great power. The other side, the defeated, spend the next few years developing a counter strategy, and this counter strategy becomes successful, leads them to power, and on and on goes the process. Those who are weaker are more creative and inventive, out of necessity. That is how guerrilla warfare evolved and became the beast that it is.

Our enemies in the Middle East have had much time to work on their counter strategies. They have become inventive and clever. They disguise their intentions. They are masters at indirection. They leverage their weakness to great effect. They are consummate players at politics, using the media, occupying the moral high ground. We, the stronger side, have become locked into ways of thinking that are disastrous. We are not creative, we are not fluid, we do not adapt. The result is a large scale war launched in Iraq that plays precisely into the enemy’s hands.

Which leads me to Hezbollah and the current war going on. Hezbollah is a new kind of beast. Part terrorist, part guerrilla, part legitimate political entity. It is an adaptation in response to the stalemate of the Middle East, an evolution towards a new kind of power. Terrorists and guerrilla fighters are masters at posing dilemmas to their enemies. They launch a bold attack and if you respond with boldness the terrorists get the dramatic response and the chaos they want. It is hard to fight such small numbers, dispersed in a country, with bombs and armies. Do not respond at all and the public loses faith. You must do something, so you react, generally without much thought. Posing dilemmas is the ultimate in strategy.

When the Hezbollah soldiers went into Israel and captured its soldiers, they unleashed something that perhaps they did not intend. We do not know their intentions. Or perhaps they understood that in this case, they had nothing to lose. It seems in the way they have organized their cells in the south, how they have dispersed their weapons and soldiers, that they have indeed been planning for just this scenario, for quite some time.

In Lebanon, the situation was somewhat stalemated. The country is radically split and Balkanized. Syria’s influence politically was fading. The danger was that Hezbollah could become a marginalized power within Lebanon. With one kick of a rock they have successfully set off a chain reaction in which everything is reshuffled and now they will emerge as the political victors. It doesn’t matter if they are kicked out of southern Lebanon, and if their military power is degraded. They will win politically, and war is politics by other means. They pose a dilemma to Israel: respond with overwhelming force and you will strengthen our hand in the long run; do not respond and you look weak to your own public and to the Arab world, equally strengthening our hand in the long run.

From the Israeli side, they had to respond. The current government was not as hawkish as Sharon’s and to not counter this brazen attack would lead to grave political problems. So they fall into the trap that is set. At first, it appeared that the Israelis had the intention of destroying Hezbollah, both militarily and politically. By bombing bridges, roads, and making it hard for the enemy to resupply itself, they were hoping to set up a devastating military blow. (At first, I read it as such and believed some kind of surprise attack was in the works.) But as the winds shifted and this looked like it could backfire, the Israelis scaled this back. Hezbollah had gained great prestige within Lebanon. And clearly the Israelis could not destroy them without invading the entire country, something it had no stomach for.

It had always been part of their plan to create a buffer zone in the south. As opposed to the mindset of the 70s and 80s, this is a new Israel. They are weary of all of the wars and bloodshed and constant drip drip of terrorist attacks. What the Israelis dream of is to create a kind of wall in which they can keep out all of their enemies, and live in isolation. They cannot solve the geopolitical problems of the Middle East. They cannot really rely on Bush Jr., because he will be out of power in a few years and who knows who will succeed him. They want a wall of security.

In this light, their strategic response becomes clearer. Forget about sending messages to Iran or Syria or dealing with the whole picture. Just buy some peace with a buffer zone, and then some time to deal with the Palestinians. To create this buffer zone they must clear out the South in as definitive a manner as possible, as quickly as possible. Time is not on their side because the enemy has already won the war of perceptions, and world opinion will matter. You cannot set up this international buffer zone without the cooperation of various world powers.

But this bunker mentality is a reaction to what the enemy has forced on them. It is a reaction of exhaustion, understandably so. And it has many weaknesses. The greatest weakness is that of time. With Hezbollah’s political hand strengthened in the north, who knows how this will evolve over the course of months and years. Inevitably there will be incursions into the south, to take back territory that they see as rightfully theirs. The international force will be caught in the cross hairs. Israel will inevitably be dragged back into something, and the Bush administration may no longer be there to support them.

Building walls and bunkers is never a strategy that works over the long term, because it is not something that can adapt. And yet what is the alternative? When the enemy has many alternatives and you have few and none of them are that good, well, such an enemy controls the dynamic.

One has to ask: in the past the Israeli military and its leaders were quite inventive in their strategies. What has happened? Why have they lost all initiative, all fluidity of thought? Where is their Inchon surprise? Why have western armies come to rely so heavily on air attacks, set up punches for blows that hit but don’t knock out the dispersed enemy? Why are western armies always fighting the last war? When will this end?

Terrorism and this new way of fighting poses a riddle for us in the West: will we adapt to their elusiveness, to their use of politics, etc.? Will we understand their intentions, their mindset and create counterstrategies that finally put them on the run? In the end, the creation of a novel counterstrategy to terrorism would be far more effective than all of the technology we waste on the several war fronts we are now fighting on, a perfect illustration of my contention that strategy will always prevail over sheer force.

There are different ways to fight this enemy, ones more subtle, and I open the debate to you. I will have more to say on this front. And this is not to proclaim that all is lost or it is merely black and white. The situation is obviously more complex than these statements can possibly describe. What I am after is the reality: the reality of who is winning these wars and why. That is all I want. And in reading the situation this way, I conclude that our form of strategy is completely bankrupt and something must take its place or we will suffer the consequences.

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