Mutual Strategic Failure: How Foolishness Shapes War

According to Carl von Clausewitz, a state’s martial resources consist of its armed forces, its territory, and its population. The Bush administration has still not learned that lesson.

During his recent visit to airfields in Iraq, George W. Bush has been making much about Sunni tribes supporting United States forces in Iraq. His rhetoric typically evaluates that development in the context of the recent troop surge and concludes that the United States will have to occupy Iraq for a long time.

That’s the wrong perspective. It indicates that Bush’s strategic view remains muddled. What we are actually witnessing is not the success of the surge but the failure of al Qaida.

Initially, the invasion of Iraq was a strategic triumph for Osama bin Laden. His organization was too weak to assume control over any Muslim state, much less to bring about a Caliphate of all Muslims. Like his anarchist and communist forebears, bin Laden relied on a terrorist strategy. Bombing American bases, embassies, and naval vessels bin Laden attempted to provoke the incommensurate retaliation of the United States. The terrorist logic envisions that an extraordinarily violent response will delegitimize governments, radicalize populations, and generate support for the terrorists. In the process, the aspiring revolutionaries hope to graduate from terrorism via guerilla to regular warfare to take over the government.

In the wake of September 11th, George W. Bush took bin Laden’s bait. The Afghanistan invasion was initially a success because the United States enjoyed popular support, not only among ethnic minorities but also among members of the dominant Pashtun tribes. In a post-colonial world, however, Muslims and Arabs around the world would interpret the invasion of an oil rich Arab country such as Iraq as an imperial western ploy.

President Bush and his supporters have not tired to emphasize that the United States is not tainted by imperialism. Such rhetoric might be reassuring to Bush’s supporters but it is not credible in the eyes of non-Americans. Although the United States was instrumental in dismantling European empires, Hawaii and Puerto Rico remain American. Indeed, there would not be a United States of America if it were not for the submission of the hunter gatherer societies that first settled Northern America. As a settler country, the United States of America originates as an imperialist project that could not otherwise exist were it not for its imperial origin and an imperial national agenda better known as manifest destiny, which subjugated not only native populations but also fighting its imperial rivals Canada and Mexico.

We cannot expect foreign peoples to accept American mythology. When our forces invade foreign countries, populations will often expect the worst, not the best, of us.

Of course, the American military can smash other armed forces all over the world. That’s enough to defend clients such as Kuwait. It is not enough to occupy even a relatively small country such as Iraq. The reason is that our armed forces cannot pacify foreign populations.

As Zbigniew Brzezinski points out, the imperial age is over because populations everywhere are politically active. If populations do not accept occupation, America cannot prevail.

In his self-serving self-righteousness George W. Bush cannot understand the defining feature of global politics. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, seems to have been keenly aware of the role of anti-imperialism in Arab identity.

As Richard Clarke had predicted in the national security council, Iraqi Sunnis and international Muslim volunteers flocked to join the terrorists in Iraq because they perceived the invasion as an imperialist project. Osama bin Laden’s provocation had come to fruition only because of Bush’s mistake. It is the nature of terrorism that the terrorists have to rely on their enemies’ mistakes.

However, al Qaida was unable to materialize strategic gains from its enhanced capacity in Iraq. Like their Anglo opponents, al Qaida’s operatives misunderstood the nature of the conflict in which they were involved. Instead of leveraging Sunni fears of American and Shia domination to build support among the population, al Qaida antagonized its potential supporters.

Although propaganda and coercion play an important role in guerilla warfare, it ultimately rests on the population’s support. Mao Zedong pronounced that guerilla fighters must move among the people like fish in the water. He was careful to instruct his troops to generate value in the community by activities such as helping with the harvest, providing access to medical care and education. More importantly, the People’s Liberation Army bound the overwhelming proportion of the population to its cause by distributing the land of the rich to peasants and by agitation and political education. Once the peasants had a stake in the revolution, coercion could shore up support for the Chinese communists.

In contrast to the People’s Liberation Army, al Qaida alienated the population. Iraqi Sunnis had not signed up to become the objects of outsiders’ medieval utopia. Sharia law Taliban style is not all that attractive and Jordanian thugs do not have that much more in common with Iraqi Sunnis than other invaders.

I do not know why al Qaida is incapable of properly assessing its strategic situation. From afar it seems clear, however, that there is a capacity problem. Even if there had been a sound strategic plan, it would have been difficult for al Qaida leaders to control “their” fighters who are primarily fanatic volunteers. It is always a challenge to maintain discipline in a force of zealots, especially if one cannot pay them regularly and timely.

Moreover, whatever the shortcomings and the crimes of the Chinese Communists might have been, they were Chinese and had a Chinese agenda. Al Qaida is an alien organization led by foreigners and relying to a large degree on foreign volunteers. Of course, their claims to power will have disturbed indigenous elites and might have been troubling to Sunnis with national and local aspirations.

As it appeared that the American occupation was a failure, Sunni concerns about American imperialism became increasingly irrelevant. With increasing probability of withdrawal, the shadow of the future turned enemies into the source of cash and equipment.

In that respect, George W. Bush’s theatrics proclaiming success and the necessity to stay have been counterproductive. Aside from the fact that al Anbar is still a mixed bag, which continues to account for a quarter of American casualties, Bush needs to realize that it will be a lot harder to sustain Sunni alliances when he insists on staying in the country for the long term. Instead of staging media events that legitimize the denial of failure, Bush needs to credibly assure Iraqis that the United States will leave in the foreseeable future. Imperialism remains a loser.

The good news is that our worst enemies, al Qaida, are even more inept than our national leadership. Al Qaida in Iraq is essentially finished. The country will never be a refuge to al Qaida terrorists again. Whatever opportunities Bush may have created with the invasion, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants have destroyed.

Reciprocal foolishness hurts al Qaida more than us. Unlike al Qaida, the United States of America is a nation state with a lot of capacity to endure failure. Adam Smith pointed out during war time: “There is an awful lot of ruin in a country.” Movements have a lot less substance to endure failure.

That’s no reason, however, to embrace our own foolishness. It’s time to conduct this war sensibly. The world will afford us a second chance but every dollar we spent and every live we loose needlessly compounds the loss over time, slowly but surely, we are selling our children’s future short.

The vanity of one man and his camarilla is not worth that sacrifice. In a parliamentary democracy, Bush would have been replaced by 2005. The American Constitution, as practiced today, provides for too little capacity to rectify failure and gives too much power to one man. That’s no way to run a superpower in today’s world.



  1. Thanks for the compliments, Vince and Chino. You might be right, Chino, that addled might be the better adjective.

    Either way, it’s hard to understand why the Bush administration invaded Iraq unless one assumes that the decision makers were guided by irrational feelings.


  2. Thanks for sending this on to me. I appreciate your thoughtful critique. You never state it explicitly, but it sounds like your claim is that Al Quaida is failing because (even though it isn’t a state) it is perceived to be an imperialist project. I’m not sure imperialism is the operative construct upon which failed impositions/invasions are predicated, even though it may contribute to the failure. Many “products” of cultural imperialism have successfully invaded global cultures, despite passionate opposition by some. Your comments relate specifically to the Iraqi-context. How well do they apply to Afghanistan? Clearly, the invasion of Afghanistan has been managed much differently than Iraq, but it was and is an imperialist invasion nonetheless, albeit an international one. I say that to be a little cheeky, because of course “imperialism” has such negative historical connotations, when it’s actually quite hard to differentiate between a “good” or “bad” invasion without revealing for whom it’s good or bad.


  3. Thanks for stopping by, Jeffrey. Of course, you are correct. Building the Caliphate is an imperial project. On the other hand, al-Qaida’s imposition of zealous and dogmatic rules would probably alienate populations even if it was a home grown movement.


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