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Has the U.S. (unwittingly) mastered the art of succeeding through defeat?

By deepsand ·

Geopolitics and the U.S. Spoiling Attack
By George Friedman

The United States has now spent four years fighting in Iraq. Those who planned the conflict never expected this outcome. Indeed, it could be argued that this outcome represents not only miscalculation but also a strategic defeat for the United States. The best that can be said about the war at the moment is that it is a strategic stalemate, which is an undesired outcome for the Americans. The worst that can be said is that the United States has failed to meet its strategic objectives and that failure represents defeat.

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. This general paradox must be explained. And in the course of explanation, some understandings of the Iraq campaign, seen in a broader context, might emerge.

Schools of Thought

There are three general explanations for this paradox:

1. U.S. power does not rest on these politico-military involvements but derives from other factors, such as economic power. Therefore, the fact that the United States has consistently failed in major conflicts is an argument that these conflicts should not have been fought -- that they were not relevant to the emergence of American 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. Applying this logic, it would be argued that the Soviet Union would have collapsed anyway under its own weight -- as will the Islamic world -- and that U.S. interventions are pointless.

2. The United States has been extraordinarily fortunate that, 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. In the long run, this good fortune should not be viewed as strategy, but as disaster waiting to happen.

3. The wars mentioned previously were never as significant as they appeared to be -- public sentiment and government rhetoric notwithstanding. These conflicts drew on only a small fraction of potential U.S. power, and they always were seen as peripheral to fundamental national interests. The more important dimension of U.S. foreign policy was statecraft that shifted the burden of potential warfare from the United States to its allies. So, regardless of these examples, the core strategic issue for the United States was its alliances and ententes with states like Germany and China. Applying this logic, it follows that the wars themselves were -- practically speaking -- insignificant episodes, that stalemate and defeat were trivial and that, except for the domestic political obsession, none were of fundamental importance to the United States.

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.

There is a reasonable case to be made for any of these three views. Any Stratfor reader knows that our sympathies gravitate toward the third view. However, that view makes no sense unless it is expanded. It must also take into consideration the view that the Soviet Union's fall was hardwired into history regardless of U.S. politico-military action, along with the notion that a consistent willingness to accept stalemate and defeat represents a significant threat to the United States in the long term.

Resource Commitments and Implications

Let's begin with something that is obviously true. When we consider Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran and even Iraq, it is clear that the United States devoted only a tiny fraction of the military power it could have brought to bear if it wished. By this, we mean that in none of these cases was there a general American mobilization, at no point was U.S. industry converted to a wartime footing, at no point were nuclear weapons used to force enemy defeat. The proportion of force brought to bear, relative to capabilities demonstrated in conflicts such as World War II, was minimal.

If there were fundamental issues at stake involving national security, the United States did not act as though that was the case. What is most remarkable about these conflicts was the extreme restraint shown -- both in committing forces and in employing available forces. The conservative critique of U.S. foreign policy revolves around the tendency of the American leadership and public to recoil at the idea of extended conflict. But this recoil is not a response to extended war. Rather, by severely limiting the force available from the outset, the United States has, unintentionally, designed its wars to be extended. From this derives the conservative view that the United States engages in warfare without intending victory.

In each of these cases, the behavior of the United States implied that there were important national security issues at stake, but measured in terms of the resources provided, these national security issues were not of the first order. The United States certainly has shown an ability to mount full-bore politico-military operations in the past: In World War II, it provided sufficient resources to invade Europe and the Japanese empire simultaneously. But in all of the cases we have cited, the United States provided limited resources -- and in some cases, only covert or political resources. Clearly, it was prepared on some level to accept stalemate and defeat.

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.

The Spoiling Attack

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. Military power, like all power, is finite. It must be husbanded. Even in a war in which no resources are spared, some operations do not justify a significant expenditure. Some attacks are always designed to succeed by failing. More precisely, the resources devoted to those operations are sufficient to disrupt enemy plans, to delay an enemy offensive, or to create an opportunity for political disruption of the enemy, rather than to defeat the enemy. For those tasked with carrying out the spoiling attack, it appears that they are being wasted in a hopeless effort. For those with a broader strategic or geopolitical perspective, it appears to be the proper application of the "economy of force" principle.

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. In Korea, spoiling Communist goals created breathing space elsewhere for the United States, and increased tension levels between China and Russia. A stalemate achieved outcomes as satisfactory to Washington as taking North Korea would have been. In Cuba, containing Fidel Castro was, relative to cost, as useful as destroying him. What he did in Cuba itself was less important to Washington than that he should not be an effective player in Latin America. In Vietnam, frustrating the North's strategic goals for a decade allowed the Sino-Soviet dispute to ripen, thus opening the door for Sino-U.S. entente even before the war ended. The U.S. interest in Iran, of course, rested with its utility as a buffer to the Soviets. Being ousted from Iran mattered only if the Iranians capitulated to the Soviets. Absent that, Iran's internal politics were of little interest to the United States.

If we apply the twin concepts to Iraq, it is possible to understand the reasons behind the size of the force deployed (which, while significant, still is limited relative to the full range of options brought to bear in World War II) and the obvious willingness of the Bush administration to court military disaster. 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.

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.

But there is an underlying order to U.S. foreign policy that makes the apparent chaos of policymaking understandable and rational.

Distribution and Reprints
This report may be distributed or republished with attribution to Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at .

? Copyright 2007 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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I dont remember seeing that report

by DanLM In reply to Has the U.S. (unwittingly ...

Good article. Thanks deepsand.


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I'm in the process of archiving all of my newletters, and ...

by deepsand In reply to I dont remember seeing th ...

just now noticed it. A bit late, but quite thought provoking.

That the U.S. may have hit upon a successful foreign policy, one that has been continued over numerous administrations, all without a conscious effort of the part of policymakers, is not merely fortuitous but frightening as well, as it suggests that our future has, for a very long time, not been so much at our command as we would have it be.

May our future be as kind as has our past.

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by nentech In reply to Has the U.S. (unwittingly ...

All those people that seem like they don't know what the **** they doing

May not be as dumb or sneaky as we thought

Or maybe it was the aliens or god (Damm) in charge

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Spooky indeed.

by deepsand In reply to Spooky

Setting aside conjectures re. external influences, the questions still remain.

Of the 3 interpretations presented in the article, which do you see as the one most likely to be the correct one & why?

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Now I have my foil hat on

by nentech In reply to Spooky indeed.

I can give you my own answer

It?s the French

They are behind everything

Just look at what they did to those islands in the south pacific

Poor things they were just setting there not hurting anyone

Truthfully I think its luck and some planing

Even the devil can get lucky

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But, how many nuts does a blind squirrel find?

by deepsand In reply to Now I have my foil hat on

Might it not be, as presented as one option in the article, that our efforts in these regards were irrelevant, that the economic factors were in fact the controlling ones? And, if so, would we not have been better off in the past, and likewise the future, were we to cease using the military to project power?

On the other hand, if in fact our use of military power did have a controlling effect, what has led us to be so fortuitous despite not having achieved our stated goals? And, most importantly, what, if anything, can we do in the future to ensure the same "luck?"

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Predicting the future is impossible

by nentech In reply to But, [u]how many[/u] nuts ...

Trying plan for everything that may happen will leave you

1. Paranoid (You soon realise how many things can go wrong)
2. Suspicious (You will realise how many people can not be trusted)
3. Unhappy (You then understand how little control you have of your own life)

The best thing to do is to look at the positive side

1. In any situation someone will do the right thing (Have faith in your fellow man)
2. You will survive most accidents and fights (even 50 percent is enough)
3. Someone will learn how to prevent it from happening again

Those are some of the ways many of us cope with an uncertain world
The truth is religion helps many people to cope with their lives
The non-religious people do not have the faith or belief that things will turn out all right

Any effort that creates the desired result is not wasted
The economic factors would only be part of what happened
Don?t forget not all battles are carried out on the battlefield
What we hear about is only part of the battle

In the case of Iraq the sanctions weakened Iraq but Sadam stayed in power
He then turned his attention to the groups who apposed him in Iraq

I would like to point out
A much larger number of people lost their lives trying to stop/remove Sadam before the war
Than was lost from the start of the war until the time Sadam was forced to run and hide
Those people did not waste their lives
Their efforts helped to reduce the strength of Sadams power

The war in Iraq shows us sometimes force is the only choice
Modern war has become a war of attrition
Which has made it even more undesirable
But what is less desirable is to sit back and let someone kill thousands
So we still need armies to stop them

What so many people forget is we all are human
Nations do not have the right to kill people just because they are inside their borders
What weapons or methods they may have had or used is not as important

I will not reply to any arguments about the death penalty
Life and death are not the same when it comes to war
It is not suicide to give your life to save others

In any argument there is only two sides
So you were for Sadam or you were against him
The rest of the arguments were about how to deal with him

So many tech minded people forget this
The best way to fight a computer war is to turn them off and shoot the idiot who started it
The fight will be in the real world not cyber space
If you want something made get someone to build it
Most will take gold or food
If you have the gold or food screwing up your bank account makes no difference

On luck and politicians
It gets to scary if we start to think they are smarter than they appear
To think they are smart enough to understand ?To lose is to win" or "To win is to lose?
Is way too scary
(Brrrr just got goose bumps)

The military does under stand war better than the average Joe

Anyway this is getting long

Don?t worry it will all turn out all right

Edit to fix duhhh Mistocks and add

It is not wise to trust politicians
They tend to say and do
The stuff of little importance or as little as they can (Lazy bars**teds)

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Making predictions is easy.

by deepsand In reply to Predicting the future is ...

It's remembering & understanding the past that is difficult.

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Very true

by nentech In reply to Making predictions is eas ...

How we face the future is up to each of us

Predicting the future is very difficult if you don?t know all the facts

Buck up the sun will rise tomorrow
Even if it?s above the clouds

Just have a good time don?t worry about the future
There are plenty of other people who can do that

Go and have a drink (Coffee or tea if you like)

Cheers from me

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Serious question.

by deepsand In reply to Spooky

Of the 3 explanations presented in the article, which do you see as being the more likely?

Or, have you an explanation not mentioned?

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