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Win Without a Win

Its the kind of thing that might be more appropriate to post on, say, a Sunday so you can read it with a mug of coffee and some time to think. But I didnt want this one to grow stale.

Though its a subscriber site, DT has a line on a few analytical pieces from the private intelligence firm, Stratfor. They can be a bit in the weeds at times, but this one is a big chunk of food for thought as it attempts to answer the fundamental question of why the United States seems to get itself in conflicts that end in stalemate.

The muddled result of the war in Iraq may not have been such a surprise after all, and, in some twisted way, may serve Americas overall purpose in the global war on terrorism though unintentionally Stratfor says.

Excerpts of the intel analysis follow:

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

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Put somewhat differently, there is the liberal view that the Soviet Union was not defeated by the United States in the Cold War, but that it collapsed itself, and the military conflicts of the Cold War were unnecessary. There is the conservative view that the United States won the Cold War in spite of a fundamental flaw in the American character -- an unwillingness to bear the burden of war -- and that this flaw ultimately will prove disastrous for the United States. Finally, there is the non-ideological, non-political view that the United States won the Cold War in spite of defeats and stalemates because these wars were never as important as either the liberals or conservatives made them out to be, however necessary they might have been seen to be at the time

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

Even in cases where the enemy was engaged fully, the United States limited its commitment of resources. In Vietnam, for example, the defeat of North Vietnam and regime change were explicitly ruled out. The United States had as its explicit goal a stalemate, in which both South and North Vietnam survived as independent states. In Korea, the United States shifted to a stalemate strategy after the Chinese intervention. So too in Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis; and in Iran, the United States accepted defeat in an apparently critical arena without attempting a major intervention. In each instance, the mark of U.S. intervention was limited exposure -- even at the cost of stalemate or defeat

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...

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 invasion four years ago has led to the Sunnis and Shia turning against each other in direct conflict. Therefore, it could be argued that just as the United States won the Cold War by exploiting the Sino-Soviet split and allying with Mao Zedong, so too the path to defeating the jihadists is not a main attack, but a spoiling attack that turns Sunnis and Shia against each other. This was certainly not the intent of the Bush administration in planning the 2003 invasion; it has become, nevertheless, an unintended and significant outcome

Moreover, it is far from clear whether U.S. policymakers through history have been aware of this dimension in their operations. In considering Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Iran, it is never clear that the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson/Nixon or Carter/Reagan administrations purposely set out to implement a spoiling attack. 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

However, there is a deep structure in U.S. foreign policy that becomes visible. The incongruities of stalemate and defeat on the one side and growing U.S. power on the other must be reconciled. 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

I know its heavy reading for a Monday morning, but its worth considering as the Iraq war grinds on without any clear momentum toward victory or even success.

(Gouge: CM)

-- Christian

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