April 1, 2008  

The fight for friends

U.S. national strategy should refocus from military operations to intelligence

Polls show that most non-Kurdish Iraqis blame the U.S. for the condition of their country and believe that their situations will improve after we leave. If, some five years after the invasion, this describes the mood of those we came to help, it suggests that we and the Iraqi people will obtain — at best — an Iraq that is worse off than it was before our occupation and one that could provide a breeding ground of resentment against American interests for as long into the future as we can imagine.

At worst, our withdrawal from Iraq could result in hundreds and possibly thousands of additional American casualties, the abandoning of billions of dollars of equipment, and the emergence of powerful and determined entities allied with Iran in the case of the Shiites, or with the most regressive political and social forces in the Middle East in the case of Arab Sunnis.

How did we get ourselves into this predicament? We cannot fault the efforts of the American military. Our armed services have suffered some 4,000 deaths and several times that many seriously injured. As a nation, we have supported the effort with a generational spending obligation that will likely top $2 trillion, including interest on the money we’ve borrowed to fight the war and what we will spend to care for our critically wounded service members.

There are two major reasons for our problems. One is that, in the words of retired British Gen. Rupert Smith, “Military force [today] is considered a solution, or part of a solution, in a wide range of problems for which it was not originally intended or configured.” Simply put, military forces — that is, conventional military forces — are intended to defeat other conventional military forces on the battlefield. Ours are the best in the world at that, but when we ask them to do other things, like stability operations, we shouldn’t be too surprised when they have problems.

So AFJ writer Ralph Peters is undoubtedly correct when he writes in “Dishonest doctrine” [December] about “killing those who need killing,” but he never explains why American troops should be the ones doing the killing or how, if we do, the Iraqis will ever recover the ability to do it themselves. Al-Qaida caused no problems for the Iraqi population before March 2003.

Which raises a second major reason for our problems: our refusal to think in terms of grand strategy. If you make this observation among policy groups, you will likely be greeted with beatific smiles and politely stifled yawns, but our emphasis on strategy — how to use military forces — at the expense of grand strategy — why to use military force — explains most of our problems.

Grand strategy is nothing more than the art of making more friends and allies than enemies. Grand strategy is why Hitler lost World War II: Many more people were willing to fight him than wanted to join him, which ultimately offset the battlefield brilliance of the Wehrmacht. Today, we need to concentrate on keeping the friends we have — no more denigrating an “old Europe” — while building our relationships in the developing world, where most terrorism is spawned.

People in the developing world, like people everywhere, need stable, functioning governments that enjoy a substantial degree of legitimacy. And these governments need to be integrated into what Thomas Barnett calls the world’s “functioning core.” Under these conditions, nonstate threats to security become manageable. They become seen as what they are — organized crime with an ideological veneer — and these can be dealt with through enhanced international cooperation on intelligence and law enforcement.


What does not seem to work, or work very reliably, is what British military historian Basil Liddell Hart derided as the “direct approach.” An intervention by foreign armies, even for the best political and humanitarian reasons, is still an invasion and an occupation. After a while, the locals are going to resent it and then resist it, as the fall of empires (including the Soviet Union) in recent years demonstrates. Some people, however, will tell you that Iraq could have turned out differently. If only they had been listened to, the Iraqis would be living in a prosperous, secular, Western-oriented democracy today. Perhaps, but the one thing that all who make such claims have in common is that they have never done it.

It is impossible to prove that an alternative occupation would have led to a more favorable outcome, as if the world could be replayed enough times to reach statistical significance. What data we do have suggests that occupiers should expect problems: A recently published study by Patricia Sullivan at the University of Georgia, for example, found that of 122 uses of military force by major powers against weak powers since the end of World War II, nearly two-thirds of those that needed “target compliance,” which includes occupations, were unsuccessful. It is impossible, in other words, for would-be occupiers to obey Sun Tzu’s injunction that victorious armies should win first and then, and only then, go into battle. We should not risk our blood and treasure, not to mention those of our intended beneficiaries, on such gambles.

The goal of American grand strategy should be, in the late strategist John Boyd’s pithy summary, to pump up our morale, deflate that of our opponents and attract the uncommitted to our cause. Do that and we “win first,” and usually will not feel compelled to invade anyone. Unfortunately, this blithe description of grand strategy hides a brutal game, for one element in attracting the world’s uncommitted is demonstrating that our cause is so compelling that we are not afraid to die for it. As historian Martin van Creveld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem summarized modern conflict in his recent book, “The Changing Face of War”: “Compared to the willingness, or lack of it, in men (and women) to die for their cause, virtually all questions of policy, organization, doctrine, training and equipment pale into insignificance.”

It does not take a grand strategic genius to figure out which side in the “war on terror” is winning in this respect. Our military forces, as the casualty figures from Iraq and Afghanistan tragically show, are doing their part. However, walk into any airport in the U.S. and you see a nation that is scared to death. Some of these security measures are undoubtedly justified, but the sight of the citizens of the world’s greatest power meekly shuffling along in sock feet must make Osama bin Laden’s heart beat proud.


If the next administration is to go down in history as recovering from the mistakes of the early 21st century and setting the nation back on the path to prosperity and improved standards of living, we must place the use of armed force back into its proper context. When conducting external affairs, our emphasis must be on building a deep understanding of what is happening in the world and why — on achieving “objective perception.” With a clear and unbiased picture of what is going on, a little force at the right time and place can produce spectacular results without the risks of a prolonged occupation.

Refocusing the national security emphasis from military operations to intelligence would also allow significant reductions in the nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars we spend every year on the various aspects of our national defense. Stuffing the defense spending genie back into the bottle will also produce major benefits to the economy and to the quality of life in the country as a whole.

To put defense spending in perspective: If we could refund a half-trillion dollars to the taxpayers, we would put about $4,000 (tax free) back into the pocket of every household that filed a tax return for 2005. We would do that every year as far into the future as the budget-eye can see, and the amount would grow 10 percent or more each year, just as the defense budget has been growing for the last several years. By comparison, the one-time stimulus rebates recently passed by Congress and signed by the president will be, at most, $1,200, to be “paid for” by increasing the deficit.

While eliminating the entire defense budget is not realistic, you can get an idea of what is realistic by looking at what we spend on the Marine Corps. This force, which exceeds the capability of any opponent we might actually confront (i.e., excluding major nuclear powers and U.S. allies), costs about $30 billion per year. The Marine Corps budget, in fact, exceeds the combined military budgets of all the members of the “axis of evil,” plus all the countries of the Middle East that are not U.S. allies.

Although a Marine Corps-size force by itself would not constitute a complete defense capability — it would require additional ships and aircraft to move and support it, and there are some missions, such as nuclear deterrence, anti-piracy and some special missions, that it cannot perform — it lends credence to the idea that a budget in the $200 billion to $250 billion range could be both reasonable and effective. It would still be the largest national defense budget in the world — by a long shot. Plus, it never hurts to remind ourselves that we do have allies, and with a good grand strategy, we will have a lot more.


Reducing the defense budget to rational proportions does not mean that we withdraw to our North American sanctuary and hope for the best. It does mean that we work to grow the family of nations that share a common view of security and place a high value on trade and other interactions with each other. And it means that we contain the dangers offered by the rest of the world — states and nonstates — through means appropriate to the dangers they represent.

Our everyday tools for this purpose include intelligence, law enforcement, trade, personal interaction (tourism, student exchanges, etc.) and diplomacy. Can military force be ruled out? Of course not. With a clear understanding of world dynamics, the military can be used adroitly to further national goals. Put another way, on rare occasions — for example, hostage rescue, reinforcing international law enforcement, and prevention of genocide — the core nations acting in concert may supplement the “soft” means with military actions that are — and are seen to be — unavoidable, rapid, daring and successful.