In the past fifty years, the U.S. has failed to meet its strategic objectives in every major conflict. And yet, we have still grown to become the most powerful nation in the world.
George Friedman from Stratfor considers this aspect. I have linked to Friedman before, but this may be the best analysis yet about the larger picture of U.S. domination over global affairs.
(NOTE: All blue text is mine, black text is Friedman's. Stratfor is a great source of information. Be sure to check out the site).Geopolitics and the Spoiling Attack
In considering the situation, our attention is drawn to a strange paradox that has been manifest in American foreign policy since World War II. On the one hand, the United States has consistently encountered strategic stalemate or defeat in particular politico-military operations. At those times, the outcomes have appeared to be disappointing if not catastrophic. Yet, over the same period of time, U.S. global power, on the whole, has surged. In spite of stalemate and defeat during the Cold War, the United States was more in 2000 than it had been in 1950.
Consider these examples from history:
Korea: Having defeated the North Korean army, U.S. forces were attacked by China. The result was a bloody stalemate, followed by a partition that essentially restored the status quo ante -- thus imposing an extended stalemate.
Cuba: After a pro-Soviet government was created well within the security cordon of the United States, Washington used overt and covert means to destroy the Castro regime. All attempts failed, and the Castro government remains in place nearly half a century later.
Vietnam: the United States fought an extended war in Vietnam, designed to contain the expansion of Communism in Indochina. The United States failed to achieve its objectives -- despite massive infusions of force -- and North Vietnam established hegemony over the region.
Iran: The U.S. containment policy required it to have a cordon of allies around the Soviet Union. Iran was a key link, blocking Soviet access to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. expulsion from Iran following the Islamic Revolution represented a major strategic reversal.
Iraq: In this context, Iraq appears to represent another strategic reversal -- with U.S. ambitions at least blocked, and possibly defeated, after a major investment of effort and prestige.
Look at it this way. On a pretty arbitrary scale -- between Korea (1950-53), Cuba (1960-63), Vietnam (1963-75), Iran (1979-1981) and Iraq (2003-present) -- the United States has spent about 27 of the last 55 years engaged in politico-military maneuvers that, at the very least, did not bring obvious success, and frequently brought disaster. Yet, in spite of these disasters, the long-term tendency of American power relative to the rest of the world has been favorable to the United States.
Friedman goes on to list three possible explanations for this paradox :
1.That U.S. power is derived not from winning wars, but from other factors, like economic power.
"The U.S. preoccupation with politico-military conflict has been an exercise in the irrelevant that has slowed, but has not derailed, expansion of American power."
2. The United States has just been lucky.
"despite its inability to use politico-military power effectively and its being drawn consistently into stalemate or defeat, exogenous forces have saved the United States from its own weakness."
3. The conflicts were all too minor to have any major effect, even if the Goverment sold them to the people as wars that "must" be fought if we were to survive as a nation.
and then Friedman puts Iraq into this frame of reference:
If we apply these analyses to Iraq, three schools of thought emerge. The first says that the Iraq war is unnecessary and even harmful in the context of the U.S.-jihadist confrontation -- and that, regardless of outcome, it should not be fought. The second says that the war is essential -- and that, while defeat or stalemate in this conflict perhaps would not be catastrophic to the United States, there is a possibility that it would be catastrophic. And at any rate, this argument continues, the United States' ongoing inability to impose its will in conflicts of this class ultimately will destroy it. Finally, there is the view that Iraq is simply a small piece of a bigger war and that the outcome of this particular conflict will not be decisive, although the war might be necessary. The heated rhetoric surrounding the Iraq conflict stems from the traditional American inability to hold things in perspective.
But what uselessness does that represent? Surely all those lives haven't been wasted for nothing?! Not for nothing, but for overblown concepts of fear and retaliation. Still, America rises from the ashes of these "defeats" to shine again in the end, not as a direct result of going into battle, but seemingly despite it!
After noting that American involvement in all of these conflicts was limited as opposed to a "real" war he notes:
In other words, the United States consistently has entered into conflicts in which its level of commitment was extremely limited, in which either victory was not the strategic goal or the mission eventually was redefined to accept stalemate, and in which even defeat was deemed preferable to a level of effort that might avert it. Public discussion on all sides was apoplectic both during these conflicts and afterward, yet American global power was not materially affected in the long run.
What is behind that peculiar rosy ending? - after we have been told, time and again that defeat in those arenas would result in despair? Friedman analyzes the cases of our previous conflicts and our current conflict in Iraq and allows us to expand our field of vision...
This appears to make no sense until we introduce a military concept into the analysis: the spoiling attack. The spoiling attack is an offensive operation; however, its goal is not to defeat the enemy but to disrupt enemy offensives -- to, in effect, prevent a defeat by the enemy. The success of the spoiling attack is not measured in term of enemy capitulation, but the degree to which it has forestalled successful enemy operations.
The concept of a spoiling attack is intimately bound up with the principle of economy of force.
If we consider the examples cited above and apply the twin concepts of the spoiling attack and economy of force, then the conversion of American defeats into increased U.S. global power no longer appears quite as paradoxical.
He then cites examples in all the aforementioned conflicts that spoiling attacks have assisted, at least somewhat, in forwarding American interests. The only benefit he can find in Iraq is that we have turned Shia vs. Sunni. Which may have been useful if either Shia or Sunni Iraqis had been serious hotbeds of anti-american sentiment, but they weren't. In this case, we have, in all likelihood, made the situation 1000 times worse, but I digress.
He goes on to write that Bush and past presidents, unaware of this aspect, weren't actively taking this strategy as they promoted these conflicts.
The fog of political rhetoric and the bureaucratized nature of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus make it difficult to speak of U.S. "strategy" as such. Every deputy assistant secretary of something-or-other confuses his little piece of things with the whole, and the American culture demonizes and deifies without clarifying.
The liberal and conservative arguments explain things only partially. But the idea that the United States rarely fights to win can be explained. It is not because of a lack of moral fiber, as conservatives would argue; nor a random and needless belligerence, as liberals would argue. Rather, it is the application of the principle of spoiling operations -- using limited resources not in order to defeat the enemy but to disrupt and confuse enemy operations.
As with the invisible hand in economics, businessmen pursue immediate ends without necessarily being aware of how they contribute to the wealth of nations. So too, politicians pursue immediate ends without necessarily being aware of how they contribute to national power. Some are clearer in their thinking than others, perhaps, or possibly all presidents are crystal-clear on what they are doing in these matters. We do not dine with the great.
I wouldn't hold my breath on the level of crystal-clearness of our President's bubble. I think we all comprehend that Bush or any other President did not plan for their own "defeats". The greatest point that I take away from Friedman's writing is this: Withdrawing from Iraq at this moment is not a defeat of any magnitude. It is par the course for every other conflict that U.S. Presidents, democrat OR republican, have managed in the past fifty years. And there were limited adverse effects in acknowledging those failures to achieve complete military victory.
So take heart, Neo-cons! It's not defeat, we have broken the back of Iraq's military and economy. They certainly aren't a threat as a nation any longer (if they ever were). We can leave now, you see.
And for those of us who are just bleeding heart enough to look deeper into the spoiled resulting wastelands of these conflicts- we may have to just content ourselves with convincing the most rabid of our brethren to withdraw under the flag of "We did it!"