17 April 2008

The Art of Nonlearning in the Real World

Chuck Spinney
Huffington Post
April 17, 2008

The Bush administration's theory and practice of grand strategy can be summarized by the sound byte, "You are either with us or against us." But the art of grand strategy is far more subtle than this. The late American strategist, Col John R. Boyd (USAF Ret) evolved five criteria for synthesizing and evaluating a nation's grand strategy. [A compendium of Boyd's work can be found here.]
From the perspective of the United States, Boyd argued that we should shape domestic policies, foreign policies, and military strategies so that they:
  • pump up our resolve and increase our solidarity,
  • drain away the resolve of our adversaries and weaken their internal cohesion,
  • reinforce the commitments of our allies to our cause and make them empathetic to our success
  • attract the uncommitted to our cause or makes them empathetic to our success
  • end conflicts on favorable terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflicts
These criteria can be thought of as guidelines for evaluating the wisdom of specific policies or actions. But it is obviously difficult to define policies that simultaneously conform to and strengthen to all these criteria. The challenge is particularly difficult for the unilateral military strategies and the coercive foreign policies so popular with the self-referencing foreign policy elite on both sides of the aisle. Military operations and political coercion are often destructive in the short term, and these destructive strategic effects can be in natural tension with the aims of grand strategy, which should be constructive over the long term.
Moreover, the more powerful a country, the harder it becomes to harmonize the often conflicting criteria for a sensible grand strategy. Overwhelming power breeds hubris and arrogance which, in turn, carry a temptation to use that power coercively and excessively. But lording over or dictating one's will to others breeds resentment. Thus, possession of overwhelming power increases the risk of going astray grand strategically.
That risk is particularly acute for aggressive external actions, policies, and rhetoric that are designed to prop up or increase internal cohesion for domestic political reasons. Very often, the effects or military strategies or coercive foreign policies that are perceived as useful in terms of domestic political cohesion backfire at the grand-strategic level because they strengthen our adversaries' will to resist, push our allies into a neutral or even an adversarial corner, or drive away the uncommitted ... which together, can set the stage for continuing conflict.
The German invasion of France through neutral Belgium in 1914 is an classic example of how a policy shaped by inwardly focused strategic considerations (in this case, an inordinate fear of isolation and a two front war) can induce a self-referencing leadership elite into perpetrating a grand strategic disaster on the most colossal scale for the most "rational" of reasons.
Germany was not trying to conquer Belgium or France in WW I. But she became obsessed with the idea that it was necessary to attack and defeat the French army very quickly in order to knock France out of the war before France's Russian ally could mobilize in the East. But the Franco-German frontier was heavily fortified, so the German leadership elite thereby convinced itself of the strategic need to avoid these fortifications by invading small neutral Belgium. But the obsession with military strategy blinded the military planners and Kaiser to the grand strategic effects of such an invasion. In the event, the invasion of Belgium enraged the civilized world. It handed the British a propaganda windfall that the Brits milked to the hilt.
Over the next four years, the Brits successfully constructed an image of Germany as being an unmitigated evil force (which was not the case in World War I). This, combined with continued grand strategic obtuseness on the part of German elite (e.g., the Zimmermann Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare, etc.), served to effectively isolate Germany at the grand strategic level.
Even America, with its large German population and considerable anti-British sentiment, rejected its long tradition of neutrality and joined Germany's enemies. No doubt the British grand strategic success during the war also helped also to fuel the arrogance that led to the excessively vindictive atmosphere at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, which ended the conflict on onerous terms that helped to sow the seeds of future conflict. By deviating from the criteria of sensible grand strategy in victory, Britain, together with Italy and France, inadvertently helped to pave the way for the emergence of true evil in the form of Nazi Germany.
Today, the world is still paying a price for Germany's grand-strategic disaster in 1914 and Britain's ruthless grand-strategic exploitation of that disaster -- the problems in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Russian heartland, and the Caucasus, to name a few, have roots reaching back to destruction of world order between the invasion of 1914 and vengeance of 1919. So perhaps the lesson is this: Whenever a great power fails to adequately consider the criteria shaping a sensible grand strategy, painful unintended consequences can linger for a very long time on a global scale.
Recent events suggest that the administration has learned little from their grand strategic blunders, and that their incompetent "with us or against us" grand strategy will continue to play out in a very unfavorable way in the Middle East. As Robert Fox argues in a recent piece in The Guardian, the vice-president's belligerence and the administrations aggressive anti-Iran rhetoric are driving our Sunni allies into the arms of Russia. By extension such a grand strategic evolution could needlessly increase tensions with Russia and induce US support for an even more belligerent posture toward Syria, Lebanon,and Iran by Israel, making it even more difficult to resolve the Palestinian question.
This does not bode well for the future ... at least until the current administration departs from the world scene and the US switches to a grand strategy that is more in line with Boyd's criteria.