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Grand Strategy and the US Election

By April 8, 2004 No Comments

Military officers have a saying: “Amateurs talk about strategy, dilettantes talk about tactics, and professionals talk about logistics.” This is quite true.

Jean Chrétien’s proposed UN mission to the Eastern Congo back in the mid-1990s provided one example of the differences between amateurs, dilettantes and professionals. After the UN bungled the mission in Rwanda (by not letting the seasoned soldiers on the ground off the leash to prevent the massacre of 800,000 people), millions of Hutus fled the outraged Tutsis and went into eastern Zaire. These refugees had to live in appalling circumstances, and were surrounded by many tribal enemies in an area where no law ruled – this helped trigger the ongoing war in the region that has cost about a million deaths a year since.

Many of the Hutu refugees are now dead – disease, starvation or violence claimed most of them — but for a brief while the TV news crews of the world were paying some attention to their plight. Chrétien caught one broadcast about the misery of the situation and immediately decided that nothing would do but a humanitarian intervention (e.g. aid-giving backed up by military force), a mission which Canada could lead.

After his amateurish decision, the dilettantes of our Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and politicized officers of National Defence Headquarters started to discuss the means by which this decision could be implemented within a UN framework. (Ahem, as a note of clarification, it should be mentioned that our diplomats are not trained in military logistics, nor should they be, and most of them are entirely professional in their respective spheres). It took the more professional officers of NDHQ (and in other militaries who received Canada’s invitation to join in) to pour cold water in the entire situation.

The military professionals pointed out that, despite the obvious humanitarian benefits of such a mission, with no railroads, paved highways, seaports, or even modern airports within 1,000 km of the region, there was no way either adequate relief supplies or a military force to ensure their delivery could get there. Great idea, couldn’t be done.

Where trifling details like logistics do not get in the way, it is easy for anyone to formulate a grand strategy – which is why politicians and other amateurs get involved in it all the time. While, as in all things, the devil is in the details, there are a couple of other simple military truths (taught to all young officers and learned the hard way by most NCOs) that politicians should remember.

Although it is easy to create a grand strategy to deal with a problem, the important thing is to stick to it. Changing a strategy is worse than not having one at all, because every time the direction changes – all the time, money and effort invested in the previous approach is wasted. The second point is even more important: Always remember what the aim was in the first place. Activities are not as important in themselves as are the goals these activities are meant to reach. There are hundreds of historical examples (in almost all spheres of human activity) to learn from, but modern decision-makers seldom read much history anyway.

After finally being confronted with the enormity of the threat from radical Islam, President George W. Bush appears to have conceived of a grand strategy to help prevent more attacks like those of 9-11. This is evidently in a two tier approach – first to help the passive defences of US and allied societies with a massive shakeup in domestic intelligence gathering and security preparations. Secondly, if the Islamic world was generating ideological terrorism, then it would be time to nudge this backward part of the world into growing in a different direction.

Like all grand strategies, the overall plan is simple but the devils in the details are particularly vexing. The creation of a Department of Homeland Security is causing the greatest reorganization of American government since the Second World War; meaning that it is expensive and a long way from being fully effective. Also, defensive measures are passive, and can never guarantee full protection.

The liberations of Afghanistan and Iraq were also daring policy decisions and necessary – but neither country is likely to become a prosperous civil society anytime soon. The US hope that these transformations might eventually change the entire Muslim world for the better may be wishful thinking, but the alternatives would be much worse. Ideologies either have to be seen by those subjected to their rule to be less competitive in providing for their wants, or else ideologies have to be bloodily hammered into extinction. The first approach worked to end the Cold War, the second was necessary to get rid of Nazism.

Both grand strategies have been undertaken and are well advanced so far; but America’s weakness in grand strategy is that its moods and leadership change so frequently. Bush’s likeliest Democratic rival has sworn to weaken the defensive strategy and abandon the second one altogether. If this happens, the main expenses of both strategies will have accrued with little sign of the expected benefits. Thus both plans will have become costly failures, and – Iraq particularly – another irritant that Jihadists will cite as a further excuse for terrorism in the future.

Still, Americans (and others) cannot be blamed for thinking Iraq is a failure. In the last few weeks all hell has seemingly broken loose there. The nest of Wahhabi Jihadists in Falluja managed to perpetuate and spread their revolt, despite taking enormous casualties from US troops.

It is usual in counter-insurgency campaigns for the guerrillas to lose six or seven dead for every fatality they inflict on highly trained and professional opponents. Few come as professional as the US Marines – who seem to be killing ten for one. But every Marine comes from far away and is expensively trained, while their opponents can easily draft more replacements.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdist ‘Army’ has also taken a similar bashing, but has evaded defeat by refusing to acknowledge it. Moreover, guerrilla movements with an outside sanctuary are difficult to defeat, and Sadr’s Shi’ite cadres are backed by Iranian money, arms and guidance.

As an aside, it is a pathetic comment on Western news media that nobody bothered to look up the term ‘Mahdi’, which is available in most decent dictionaries. The Mahdi is the predicted spiritual and temporal leader who will unite Islam and lead it to world conquest, thus creating the conditions necessary for Allah to end the World. Sadr is the equivalent of a White Supremacist declaring that he was the Messiah — a telling indicator about his mental state – and the real reason why most Iraqi Shi’ia have no interest in joining his call to arms.

The survival of both groups has encouraged every little armed band of would-be Jihadists inside Iraq to start shooting at aid workers, kidnapping foreigners where possible, and issuing impossible demands.

Besides showings its paw inside Iraq, Iran is also disdaining all international attempts to curb its burgeoning nuclear weapons program. It will soon be a fully armed nuclear power, unless stern concerted action is taken against it – and there are no signs of that coming. Even Bush doesn’t seem confident enough to launch a pre-emptive strike, despite the fact that Iran’s long involvement in sponsorship of terror makes it a likely donor for the first use of a nuclear weapon by a terrorist group.

But Iran’s backing of al-Sadr is itself a sign that the American strategy in Iraq could be successful – the last thing Iran’s despotic theocrats can tolerate is both a healthier more vibrant Iraq on their frontier, and one that presents a positive example to the unhappy Iranians who are longing for a change in government themselves.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda has also been getting cocky. While their core elements have rebuilt themselves, Osama bin Laden seems reluctant to expose them to possible US action. Instead, they appear to be increasing their operational pace by recruiting new autonomous groups in Europe and encouraging lone individuals to join the Jihad by releasing a flood of ‘How to’ instructions over the internet. The 1971 publication of The Anarchist Cookbook has led to no end of mischief over the years; the release of the al Qaeda Jihad manual will be much worse.

One unexpressed aspect of the American experiment with Iraq (and in Afghanistan) is the hope that the feared “clash of civilizations” between the Jihadists and the Western World could be abated or averted.

If Jihadist terrorism escalates and worsens, one has to wonder what the Western World can do – we can’t ignore it, can’t tolerate it, and our responses so far have been less than adequate. Instead, we will have to stop playing with half measures and look to draconian responses in order to survive, a situation we last endured in the Second World War. This war has so far only killed people by the hundreds at a go, soon it could start killing people in the hundreds of thousands.

However, there is the chance that the grand experiment in Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan) to remake the Middle East could work after all. If it does work, Arab/Muslim governments will be forced by internal pressures to change their ways, so that prosperity and individual freedoms will improve; and Islamic peoples might see that there is a better way than merely enduring nothing but anarchy between variations of secular dictatorship or Islamist rule.

The cost of failing to see the Iraqi Experiment through will be monstrous. The cost in human life can easily go from the thousands into the tens of millions in coming decades if we fail to put the Jihadists out of circulation. America’s voters should think very carefully in the coming months – they will be voting for much more than they think. Keeping Bush in power and endorsing his grand strategy might be the only way to avoid decades of truly savage war.