So-and-so “won the peace,” my wife says to me. We say that often to each other. It has become part of our private spousal language, a shortcut to an expansive world of meaning. The context? Life, and success of the genuine, authentic, meaningful sort.
Failure is often the result of succeeding at the wrong thing (eg, choosing the wrong “battles” and “wars” to win, as Pyrrhus did). Ironically, success is therefore often the result of failing at the wrong thing, and thus having an opportunity to “return” to the right things.
But Success, capitalized, tends to be about being clear about what matters, about the ends you are ultimately pursuing in life, and then using little successes only as means. Means and ends. In short, it is about strategy as taught by Clausewitz. Those who Succeed in Life “won the peace”.
What might Clausewitz say today about America’s double-war in the Middle East during this decade?
I was very tempted not to write a post on this. After all, in my forthcoming book I am ‘only’ using success and failure in war (ie, the one Hannibal and Scipio fought) as a primal metaphor for other contexts in life such as sports, love, business, relationships, exploration, reproduction, art and thought.
(Incidentally, I’m impressed by the feedback I’ve gotten from that little post. Clausewitz is very topical, it seems. For instance, Mike Lotus emailed me to point out his recent roundtable on Clausewitz, which will become a book this fall.)
I am also aware that there is little to be gained from yet another analysis of where we went wrong in responding to 9/11. Everything has been said. Worse: in contrast to, say, the Korean War or the Second Punic War, our current wars are still going on and our society is still split, so it is too early to talk dispassionately about them.
But I’ve decided that if I bring up Clausewitz and strategy, I would be chicken not to take a stab at Iraq and Afghanistan. So here goes.
The situation as it appeared on September 12, 2001
Al-Qaeda attacked us; 3,000 of us are dead; 300 million of us are shocked, angry and scared.
1) From Al-Qaeda’s point of view
Student of Clausewitz?
For Al-Qaeda, this was an ideal alignment of tactics and strategy: With little effort and cost, it caused disproportionate levels of terror (hence ‘terrorism’) in the Western world that appeared (politically and psychologically) certain to provoke us to go on an offensive. (Notice ‘an’, not ‘the’.)
Clausewitz believed that defense was much easier than offense, because whoever is attacking will eventually reach a ‘culminating point‘ point at which he is overextended and exhausted, and the defender can counterattack with devastating ease. So if we play offense and Al Qaeda plays defense, that helps them. (This is the opposite of what Cheney thinks.) Al-Qaeda was pleased.
Clausewitz also believed that, to win a war, you need to find your enemy’s center of gravity and defeat him there. Defeating him elsewhere is pointless or counterproductive. (For Clausewitz the obvious example was Napoleon‘s mistaking Moscow for Russia’s center of gravity, an error that was the beginning of his end.) Al Qaeda knew
that its center of gravity was not one that we were trained or able to identify militarily, because it had no capital and no army that we could bomb; and
that we were likely to miss its ultimate center of gravity, which is its support among Muslims at large.
Al-Qaeda might have believed (although we might be giving them too much credit) that our center of gravity was … us! If we could be terrorized into compromising our values then we might forfeit any appeal we might have for moderate Muslims around the world.
“War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means,” Clausewitz said, and Al-Qaeda’s overarching policy was and is to defeat moderate or secular or Shia Muslims in Muslim countries. Any tactic (or means) that would weaken the moderates in those countries and strengthen the extremist Sunnis would therefore fit into its strategy (or end).
If we could be provoked into disarming (ie, no longer offering appealing values to moderate Muslims) and attacking the wrong center of gravity (=Napoleon to Moscow), then a Wahabi-Sunni caliphate, united against Shias and the West, would become more likely. Al-Qaeda would consider this victory.
2) From our point of view
For us, 9/11 was a wake-up call. There were people who were trying to kill us, and even though they had only box-cutters (and hence our planes) they might get nukes. We had to keep nukes and other WMDs out of their hands, and to keep our enemies out of our countries altogether. Strategically speaking, so far, so good.
Problem Nr 1: Offense or defense? Clausewitz said that defense was better. Even in this case, he might be right. After 9/11, there was a global outpouring of sympathy for America. In Europe, Asia, even in the Middle East, reasonable people were on our side. For Al-Qaeda, this might have been an early culminating point, an act of over-reaching that could have united us with our allies and even some enemies and estranged moderate Muslims from Al-Qaeda, thus leading to its defeat.
But defense was not an option, for reasons of domestic politics and psychology, and Al-Qaeda knew that. Hence…
Problem Nr 2: Since we were going on the offense, what was the enemy’s center of gravity?The difference between going on the offensive as opposed to an offensive is one of aim: if we hit, it’s the; if we miss, it’s an. So was the center of gravity
Al-Qaeda everywhere and anywhere?
Its sympathizers anywhere?
The arms, ie the WMD, wherever they were, that might fall into Al-Qaeda’s hands?
You see the difficulty. As it turned out (but we could not have known that then), any item on the list above that seemed easy and straightforward subsequently turned out to be hard and elusive.
We thought we could get Osama quickly (but worried even then that he personally was not the center of gravity–correctly, I think). But here we are and he is, well, somewhere.
We thought we could do better than the Soviets, and as well as Alexander the Great, and just subdue Afghanistan. And we did. But then we didn’t. Or did we?
What we should have realized even then is that the center of gravity was the rest of that list.
“its sympathizers anywhere,” and
were and are three disctinct but fluid and overlapping populations. If we were to “win over” Muslims, then there would be fewer sympathizers, and thus also fewer (new) members of Al-Qaeda.
What would that have entailed? Borrowing a bit from Lao Tzu, we might have done a lot less, because Al-Qaeda is so appalling to most Muslims. (Most of the people Al-Qaeda kills are Muslims.)
We might also have contemplated a full-fledged “Muslim Marshall Plan”, on the scale of the one that we brought to Germany and Western Europe after the war (against our then-new enemy, Communism). The earthquake in Pakistan and events like it were great opportunities, largely overlooked, to show them what we can be and what Al-Qaeda is not.
We did neither of those things. Instead, we got more active than Al-Qaeda, and blew up more than we built up. That was a strategic mistake, but not nearly as big as the following:
The arms (ie, the WMD)
No, I am not talking about merely getting our intelligence about Iraq wrong (as tragic as that was). At the time (defined as: after Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN) we all thought that Saddam was making WMD.
But so what? The strategist (Clausewitz) would step back and look at the overall situation:
a risk of loose nukes in the former USSR. Must secure as fast as possible!
Pakistan, which is Muslim and next to Afghanistan, having nukes. Must support and stablize country! Check back in often.
North Korea, which was on the verge of getting nukes, but still had our (IAEA) monitors inside the country. Must contain and engage! Otherwise consider pre-emptive strike!
Iran, which was far behind North Korea in progress toward nukes, domestically complex, our enemy but also Al-Qaeda’s enemy. Must attempt to turn into potential ally against Al-Qaeda!
Iraq, which was furthest behind, mostly dabbling in chemical and biological WMD (I’m still quoting what we thought then), which are infinitely less dangerous (harder to deliver, less lethal). Our enemy, but also Al-Qaeda’s natural enemy. Must attempt to turn into tool against Al-Qaeda!
I’m guessing that several of those points caused you whiplash (the bits in italics). But remember that the idea of Nixon going to China would have caused you whiplash too.
What we did not do, but should have done, is to think strategically about the world’s nukes. A clear hierarchy of danger existed, with North Korea at the top and Iraq not even on it.
What we also did not do, but should have done, is to think strategically about enemies and allies (as Nixon and Kissinger did). The biggest enemy was Al-Qaeda. Iraq and Iran were holding each other in check (thanks to Bush senior who, in a masterly and subtle gesture, pulled back in the first Gulf War just at the point that would allow Iraq to keep holding Iran in check.)
More importantly, Iran, being Persian and Shia, and Iraq, being secular and Baathist, were both natural enemies of Al-Qaeda. Duh!
I will never forget the day I came back from the slopes in Whistler on a ski holiday with my fiancee (now wife), turned on the TV and watched the news of North Korea kicking out our monitors. That was it. That was the moment I knew we had screwed up. (And we did not even know yet that Iraq had no WMD.)
Kim Jong-Il was watching what we were about to do to Saddam and decided to make a run for it–ie, for the nukes. Until we invaded Iraq, we had everyone in a tense stalemate: Saddam could not move and had monitors in every orifice, Kim Jong-Il had monitors, and Iran was worried about Iraq as much as us. After we invaded Iraq, North Korea and Iran called our bluff: We were not going to “pre-empt” anybody again.
The rest is history
We invaded Iraq and found no weapons, even as we watched North Korea get nukes and Iran follow close behind.
We weakened Muslim moderates in their own domestic debates against extremists by becoming what Al-Qaeda needed us to become: torturers, abusers of Muslims at Abu Ghraib, bombers of civilians. We gave them a Feindbild.
At home, once we realized we were not advancing our strategy–indeed, not even formulating it properly–we began confabulating other war aims. Suddenly, it was about “democracy”, and bringing it to a region at gun point. This was somehow going to solve everything. This is when I became disgusted.
Summary: We kept sympathy for Al-Qaeda alive longer than was necessary and allowed nukes to get into the hands of people who might yet trade them to Al-Qaeda. Strategically speaking, an utter disaster.
Fortunately, the story is not over yet and, with luck, we will look back at the Bush years as merely lost time, not an irreversible defeat.
Kenneth challenges my view that Truman and MacArthur can be seen as archetypes for strategy and tactics, and frames them instead in the perennial tension between civilian and military leadership. In the comments, he then refines that into the idea of operational versus non-operational war-making.
This immediately reminded me, obliquely, of a great (incisive and entertaining) TED talk by Thomas Barnett, a great strategist. His thesis is precisely about how strategy affects operations–ie, the ‘boring’ bits of the Pentagon and State Department.
In a nutshell: The strategic situation of the United States today is one of
Where I have most fun in my forthcoming book is in fleshing out his ideas in contexts other than war, to show that strategy applies to all areas of life. But today I want to make his ideas a bit more concrete in the obvious context: war.
In June of 1950, Communist forces from North Korea poured south across the 38th parallel in an all-out attack on South Korea. Harry Truman, having come to power late in life, was the American commander-in-chief and had already made history by dropping the first and only two atomic bombs on Asian cities just five years earlier. He knew immediately and instinctively that this Communist attack had to be reversed or contained. And there to execute this purpose, in theory, was Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the United Nations forces in the region, as well as a certified American Hero from World War II and a notorious prima donna.
MacArthur began true to form, with a swashbuckling landing at Inchon in South Korea. He took the enemy by surprise, liberated Seoul in eleven days and, by October 1st of 1950, brought UN forces—primarily composed of Americans—back to the 38th parallel that the North Koreans had crossed. MacArthur now wanted a “hot pursuit” , and Truman authorized him to cross the 38th parallel.
Truman, however, added a crucial strategic condition: Do not to provoke the Chinese to enter the war, lest that should spark World War III and possible nuclear Armageddon!
Right around then, things began going wrong, not only in the war effort but also in the relationship between MacArthur and Truman.
When the two men met–for the only physical meeting of their lives–on a tiny coral islet in the Pacific, MacArthur tellingly greeted his commander-in-chief but failed to salute. The two men then met alone, before inviting others to join them. Truman made clear his overarching concern, one that Clausewitz would have approved of: to keep this a “limited” war, meaning a war to meet one single objective—rebuffing Communist aggression in Korea—without risking an escalation into what Clausewitz would have called an “absolute” war.
But the following month, Truman’s fears came true and the Communist Chinese attacked with huge force. Suddenly, MacArthur, who had been dreaming of another glorious military victory, was trying to avoid a humiliating defeat. He demanded:
a wholesale naval blockade of all of China and
immediate bombing of the Chinese mainland.
MacArthur wanted to broaden the war and to burst any remaining “limits” on it. For MacArthur, there was only one objective: victory. At all costs!
Truman thought the exact opposite. His first fear had already come true, and he now worried that the Chinese were the advance guard of a Soviet Russian intervention, what he called “a gigantic booby trap” that could lead to the explosion of World War III.
Truman and MacArthur started issuing competing press releases. MacArthur began publicly blaming Washington for everything that was going wrong. He disobeyed specific orders. He called on Truman
to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on the cities of China (!) and
to “sever” Korea from China by laying down a field of radioactive waste all along the Yalu River.
MacArthur appeared to have lost his mind. He even issued his own ultimatum to the Chinese government, as if he were president.
Big Man vs Little Man
At last, Truman took the inevitable measure and fired MacArthur. This was an obvious step, but not an easy one. MacArthur, to ordinary Americans, was still a war hero, whereas Truman’s approval was at an all-time low of 26%. (Hard to remember today, but true.) Time Magazine wrote that “Douglas MacArthur was the personification of the big man” whereas “Harry Truman was almost a professional little man.” In a poll, 69% of the country backed MacArthur. There were calls to impeach Truman. (Never underestimate the capacity of a democracy, whether Athenian or American, to run amok!)
In time, minds cleared. Truman settled for a stalemate in Korea that continues to this day and is as tense and unsatisfactory this week as ever. He chose a “defeat” of sorts that has brought lasting peace. Communism would be contained for another four decades and then crumble, leaving American as the only superpower. Parts of East Asia, like Western Europe, would prosper in relative safety.
Had MacArthur prevailed, America might well have achieved “victory”, at the cost of another world war, nuclear annihilation of millions, and perhaps nuclear counterstrikes on America from the Soviets, who were fast catching up to the Americans in the technology. It would have been the ultimate impostor of a triumph, with nobody left to march in the victory parade through the radioactive planet.
It’s time to talk about tactics as opposed to strategy in life, because knowing the difference is crucial to achieving success, and avoiding disaster. And that, of course, is the topic of my book.
The person to know about in this matter (besides Hannibal and Scipio, of course) is Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian (and later Russian) officer on the losing side against Napoleon. He also witnessed Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia, which made a deep impression on him. Think of him as the equivalent of an adviser to Scipio or Fabius, the Romans on the losing side against my main character, Hannibal.
Clausewitz is without any doubt one of the great thinkers in world history, even though he is enigmatic and still confuses people to this day. The main reason for that is that he spent his career taking notes–hundreds and hundreds of pages worth–which he meant to consolidate into a coherent whole. But then he died of cholera, at the age of fifty-one. So his great treatise, Vom Kriege, “On War”, was not coherent. Even so, it is now considered the most profound work on strategy ever, thanks to the thoughtful analysis of people such as Kenneth Payne, Patrick Porter and David Betz at King’s College in London.
Let’s look at his most famous and controversial quote:
War is nothing but the continuation of politics (or policy) with other means.
Lots of mediocre minds have, over the years, worked themselves into a fury over the alleged cynicism of this quote, entirely missing its point and getting the meaning backward. Clausewitz was not saying that all politics is potentially like war, but that all war must remain subservient to political/policy objectives. This is subtle.
Elsewhere he had set up the basic tension in war: War can in theory be:
In practice, all wars must be limited but simultaneously “want to” escalate. And here we get into Clausewitz’s wisdom:
Means vs ends
A tactical mind always and only wants to win the battle–whatever battle is being waged. (Remember Pyrrhus?) This is the mind that wants to escalate any war toward its absolute extreme. In future posts I will give some devastating examples of what this can lead to.
A strategic mind wants to win “the war” or, better yet, “the peace”! Battles are simply a means to an end. So it makes perfect sense to adjust your battle tactics not to the goal of victory but to the goal of achieving the kind of peace you ultimately want. This almost always introduces moderation and limitation into your tactics.
As with so many bits of profound wisdom, this is deceptively easy to shrug off. But consider how earth-shattering it was in its time. There was, for instance, a pompous strategist named Heinrich von Bülow, who defined tactics as “the science of military movement in the presence of the enemy,” whereas strategy was “the science of military movements beyond the range of cannon-shot of either side.” What banal and trivial drivel!
Now consider how earth-shattering Clausewitz’s insight can be for your own life: “The object of war,” he said, and I will add emphasis in bold:
as of all creative activity, is the employment of the available means for the predetermined end.
And here you see why I include Clausewitz in my pantheon of great thinkers: Simple, profound and specific, and yet expandable to other areas of life.
Have you ever “won” a fight with your lover only to feel that you’ve lost something far greater? “Won” a promotion only to feel that you’ve lost something? “Won” in a bout of office politics only to feel that you should not have entered battle to begin with?
Are you, in your life, confusing tactics with strategy, means with ends? You need some Clausewitz.