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.
Ignoring this aspect of strategy seems to contribute to the widespread view that victory in warfare amounts to the destruction of the enemy, a facile assumption that is all too unthinkingly held. “Defeating the enemy” may be the definition of victory in football, or even in chess for that matter, but not in warfare. Victory in war is the achievement of the war aim, and if, after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, we still think that victory is simply the devastation of our adversaries, we have a lot of reflecting to do.
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. For example, a strategy that relies on intervention to suppress the gross violation of human rights through genocide or ethnic cleansing may make states that fear becoming the targets of intervention more anxious to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Strategies that attempt to root out terrorism are often linked to ethnic or sectarian repression or the aggressive repression of human rights. Preemptive counterproliferation strategies by the world’s strongest military power could summon burgeoning terrorist armies that challenge the United States through asymmetric means. 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.
This rather wise and sober assessment prompted something like a scream from the Council on Foreign Relations, which labeled it an “unprecedented recognition” that U.S. “foreign policy can harm U.S. national security.” The commentator added that “the next public interview with the CIA director should begin by asking him which engagements and direct involvements he is referring to,” and demanded that “Brennan’s unprecedented recognition [be] further explored and commented on by the White House, State Department and Department of Defense.”
But of course we know which engagements Brennan was referring to because he told us in the very passage quoted. What he did not say was that our foreign policy harms our national security. Far from being an astounding concession, Brennan’s remarks linking our actions to our enemies’ responses were a rather insightful and realistic observation that would electrify only a careless listener. To highlight the distinction between “stimulating additional threats” and “harming U.S. national security,” let me turn to another concept mentioned in my first column: Parmenides’ Fallacy.
This fallacy indulges in the frequent, unthinking assertion that we should compare the present state of affairs with the past in order to evaluate the policies that have gotten us to where we are now. In fact, we should compare our current situation with alternative outcomes that would have arisen from different policies, had they been chosen. This is true for prospective policies as well: It is a sophist’s argument to deride a proposed policy (say, social security reform or free trade) by simply saying we will be worse off after the policy is implemented than we are now. That may well be true. But it could be true of even the wisest policy if other alternatives, including doing nothing, would make us even worse off in the future.
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. That, in fact, is the essence of strategy: It is not to dream up a series of unilateral actions that will inevitably lead to the accomplishment of our goals, but to recognize that each measure we take will invariably lead to countermeasures, and to anticipate the ultimate costs of reactions, both ours and theirs. Everyone has a strategy, Mike Tyson famously said, until he gets punched in the mouth.
An example of such non-strategic thinking is the idea that the United States is chiefly responsible for its problems, since other states have not wreaked the costs on America that we ourselves have undertaken in the name of deterring them. 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.
The debate on U.S. strategy is a timely one, and nothing I have said is a defense of U.S. policies, past or present. Rather, it is a lament that the debate is being pursued in the such terms as these, which add little to our assessment of the wisdom of any particular policy including especially those policies that attempt to achieve our war aims.
But the shortcomings of this approach are not merely analytical. There are practical consequences of defining strategy as that which we do, which is to strategy what shadow boxing is to boxing. For this approach often manifests itself in a kind of aphasia: 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.
We should be careful to distinguish between two groups who seek such American restraint. Some simply hold that, but for U.S. intervention, there would be no war in the world. For this group, the specter of American imperialism lurks behind all the conflicts of the 20th century. Others, however, believe that—whatever the ensuing violence that might follow an American withdrawal, or the violence that might continue undiminished in the absence of an American intervention—the use of U.S. force abroad is more damaging than beneficial to American interests.
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.