Mar 29, 2007

Why "Defeat" doesn't matter

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!"


Progressive Texas Chicano said...

Thank you VERY much for this amazing post. I never looked on our history in this context. Disturbing that we keep fucking up all over the planet but yet we still have all this power (well, until NOW anyway.)

I am going to send this out to learned friends who would benefit from this observation. Keep up the great work.

BTW, thanks to you a lot of great progressives are stopping by my blog and looks like they are checking out some others I have on my blog listing.

In progressive unity,

Curtis Greene said...

I've just recently got involved in "politics".... my family tends to not care. Right now I'm not on the internet too often... so my posts are random. I'm very interested in this next election 2008. I feel like Bush has been a dissapointment when it comes to things such as Fiscal Conservatism, and on him being liberal on abortion, and immigration. Republicans need someone more like Brownback or Rick Santorum less like Rudy. Allen wasn't so bad, but one word like "macaca" and the liberal media jumps on you like vultures.

Ziem said...

Excellent post Fade, and wonderful insight. Thank you.

The one thing this administration did not learn from Korea or Vietnam was that you can't set up your troops to fail then blame someone else for that failure.

Fade said...

Curtis- welcome to the House. Every viewpoint is a welcome one. It's the conversation that pushes us forward as a nation, not refusing to discuss issues with those who may be diametrically opposed to our own personal philosophies.

No candidate will meet everyone's expectation on the issues. That is why we have to be very careful and pick and choose our leaders who have their priorities where we think they belong. Men of strength of will and vision, intellect and the ability to compromise.

Thanks for your comments.

Anj- Glad you liked it. I also found this great link from Alternet:

Frederick said...

I had to sleep on this one (after you'd stopped by and asked me to comment) because there was something itching at the back of my skull that I couldn't quite put into words after reading this post. But after a good nights sleep I think what bothers me most is how the concept of "the spoiling attack” and George Friedman's take on America's foreign policy legitimizes the U.S.'s misadventures in Iraq. It's a parallel to the meme that the Iraq Occupation (as an extension and reflection of the Bush Administration) was a just action that was just executed poorly but was a good idea from the onset. This just adds that it was never designed do anything but "fail," and leads me to believe that it was based simply on the concept of using an economy of force because it was a heart an illegitimate use of military force.

Ziem said...

Fade: Congrats! You, and this post made crooks and liars this morning. Very Nice!

Fade said...

Friedman's audience is definitely the die hard Republican affluents, both the neo-cons and the anti-neocon-republicans as well as libertarians and mishmash guys like me. I only became aware of stratfor b/c some diehard investment guys use his information for foreign investment tweaks.

Everything you said was true- and I think that he is, of course,stepping lightly over all the detrimental affects of each of these situations- But my point was just to get to the heart of the Warhawk argument- That staying in Iraq is somehow benefitting the U.S. Of course it's not. It has been a fiasco from the get go. But as you know, the men in charge are Rich Republican corpartists whose patriotism only runs wallet deep. By framing leaving in arguments like these, they will be able to let "Go" of their stalker-like fascination with Iraq. At least that was my hope and objective with getting this point circulating.

We still have fools out there who think we should have stayed the course in Viet Nam. And for what? So they could be our valued trading partner? Duh. We left and they are. Mission Accomplished. Except for the fact that 60,000 Americans and 1 million Vietnamese lost their lives for BULLSHIT. Now, 750,000+ Iraqis and 5,000+ Americans will be killed for NOTHING if we don't withdraw ASAP.

You and I both know how this ends, Fred- We leave, it falls apart and a U.S.sponsored warlord will return to power. And we get our precious oil contracts. If that's our Worst case AND our Best case- then why the fuck is it worth staying one more day or spending one more life there? It's not.

Batocchio said...

Good article, and better post! I've always felt the neocons were pretty ignorant of history, particularly Vietnam – it's scary to read what they thought the lessons of that war was. I agree with Frederick's point, which you address – these guys didn't know what the hell they were doing. It seems Friedman allows this for as well. While there are many causes for us invading Iraq and continuing to occupy it during a civil war, it really is disturbing that one cause is an immature zealotry about macho bluster, American exceptionalism and triumphalism. I keep going back to the conflict I've studied in most depth, WWI. When that war started, most of the participating nations were eager to go to war, because the ignored the lessons of the American Civil War and had no idea what they were in for. I remember reading about early battles, waged on a Napoleonic model, but the powers that be then discovered that cavalry charges into machine guns and artillery don't work that well, and trench warfare emerged. Tom Ricks' Fiasco shows that the U.S. military shockingly never learned the counterinsurgency lessons from Vietnam, but it's the obstinate obtuseness of the political folks and their think tank allies that's even worse. They declared victory before they even started planning (to the extent that they planned). They didn't just ignore the experts who told them the truth and warned them, they derided them and in some cases tried to punish them. Mean, dumb and powerful is a lethal combination. I keep thinking "Charlie Foxtrot," but even that doesn't quite capture the narcissistic, incestuous, militant idiocy that is the Bush administration.

old hack said...

WE DID IT! By that logic we could just go drop bombs on any country we want if the objective is to just Fuck the country up. If Bush has that in his note cards then Iran here we come!

Fade said...

I don't think Bush's note cards on Iran say "Help sow the seeds of Democracy".

But I'm sure as warhawk yahoos cheer bombs blowing up civilians they will claim with a straight face that is what they are doing.

Hill said...

For Dubya, raining bombs is a game he loves. No thinking involved.

Ziem said...

Shrub thinks?