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

By deepsand ·
GEOPOLITICAL INTELLIGENCE REPORT 03.20.2007

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 www.stratfor.com .

? Copyright 2007 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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Ok this is what I think

by nentech In reply to Serious question.

1. Doesn?t apply, Politicians have very little economic sense and the military has no real control over the economy apart from what it spends
2. Applies to the politicians they need to be lucky to survive and hope that they will not get shot
3. Is most likely, Since the military has more sense than politicians

I don?t believe that trained military commanders would make simple mistakes

The wars that have been won happened because the military had what they needed to win
The wars that were lost happened because the military did not have what they needed or the loss was part of an overall strategy

Each conflict must be looked at one by one not overall
Unless they are part of an overall conflict or war

The question is not simple so there cannot be a simple answer


So I will need more information for a more definite answer

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Some clarification is needed here.

by deepsand In reply to Ok this is what I think

"1. Doesn?t apply, Politicians have very little economic sense and the military has no real control over the economy apart from what it spends
"

What no. 1 says is that, the economic effects swamp those of our military actions during the time period under examination. It does not posit that said economic effects are/were the results, intended or otherwise, of political and/or military efforts.

"2. Applies to the politicians they need to be lucky to survive and hope that they will not get shot."

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here, as no. 2, along with nos. 1 & 3, make no statements re. politicians.

"3. Is most likely, Since the military has more sense than politicians."

Firstly, no. 3 is that the military actions were, to quote the article, "insignificant episodes". Furthermore, the military does not make foreign policy. Rather, it serves to implement said policy, through the projection of force, by executing the commands of the Head of State, acting in his capacity as Commander in Chief.

Therefore, if no. 3 is in fact the correct interpretation, such is the result of foreign policy decisions, not of military strategists alone.

Now, foreign policy is not made in a vacuum; and, indeed, the advice of the military re. its capabilities & possible uses of such are an important component of the making of foreign policy.

However, history shows that our military has neither had its advice always well heeded, nor that such advice has always been the wisest.

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Well you asked

by nentech In reply to Some clarification is nee ...

This was the 1 2 and 3 I read

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.

It depends on how you look at them

If you want I can guess
But I don?t care about politics that much

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Re. "It depends on how you look at them"

by deepsand In reply to Well you asked

All three seem quite clear & unambiguous, leaving no room for multiple interpretations.

Assuming, for the moment, that said "blocking actions" did not occur wholly by happenstance, the question then becomes "by what invisible hand?"

I submit that such may be owing to American culture being imbued with an innate aversion to war. This is not to say that we are afraid to fight, as some of our detractors would maintain; but, that collectively we are loath to fight beyond that which is absolutely necessary.

Throughout our history the U.S. has always had its hawks, doves & isolationists. The ever present tension between the factions has served to ensure that rarely does one hold sway for very long. This factional nature is, of political necessity, reflected in our foreign policy, with the result that Administrations take incremental steps only when and as needed.

With regards to the use of military power, incrementalism constrains the use of force to that minimum which is perceived as being sufficient for denying one's enemy his objective, as opposed to attaining ones own.

I.e., our blocking actions are the result of our policy of incrementalism.

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What you and I are discussing

by nentech In reply to Re. "It depends on how yo ...

Are the opinions of George Friedman put forward in the article you presented

Part of it is fact
The rest is his opinion
Or the opinion of others
Or his opinion of the opinion of others

What was his reason for writing it?
What was your reason for using it to start a discussion?
Why did you choose the TR forums?

I have my opinions but that is all

The first two lines

(The United States has now spent four years fighting in Iraq. Those who planned the conflict never expected this outcome)

The first is a fact the second an opinion

Why did he start with that well known fact?

Was it to add weight to his second line and/or the whole piece or was he simply stating a fact.

His use of (Those who planned) leaves us to wonder who he is talking about
Was it politicians the military or was it someone else pulling the strings

We then have decide who (Those) are and guess what plan they had
We then have to decide if they expected this outcome

For that we need to know what they expected
We can ask

We must then decide if they are telling the truth or have they changed their expectations

Which they now put forward as what they expected from the start

Don?t you love politics?

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Re. the StratFor article.

by deepsand In reply to Spooky

"What you and I are discussing
Are the opinions of George Friedman put forward in the article you presented

Part of it is fact
The rest is his opinion
Or the opinion of others
Or his opinion of the opinion of others

What was his reason for writing it?
"

For the answers to these question, I suggest that you visit the source, at
http://www.stratfor.com/

"What was your reason for using it to start a discussion?
Why did you choose the TR forums?
"

There are those here who are interested in reading about such matters, and some who are interested in discussing them as well.

TR provides for such in the "Off-topic" category of the Discussions forum.

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Good answer

by nentech In reply to Re. the StratFor article.

You may find this interesting

http://www.americassecretwar.com/author_interviews.html

It is interesting that only two people responded to this discussion

Me and DanLM

So I hope I made it interesting for you

George Friedman?s has some interesting things to say
Sometimes he seems to contradict himself

Anyway I hope someone else will take up this discussion

I also hope you enjoyed it

I am glad it didn?t turn into an argument

But I have other things to I have to do
Bye for now

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I enjoy articles such as these

by DanLM In reply to Good answer

Makes you think. I know that I don't agree with everyone on a lot of things. But there is nothing that I won't read to gain new insight into topics that interest me. History, politics, technical, scientific.

Just because a person has a specific opinion on something does not mean they are not open to other opinions. At least myself anyway. Chuckle, even if you and I did disagree earlier Digital. I actually did see your point, I was just trying to get mine across. Unfortunately I didn't do a good job at it.

Dan

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A Discussion's participation level depends in great part on TR.

by deepsand In reply to Good answer

As the "All" Discussion list, which used to be a cumulative listing, ordered by newest to oldest, is now really a "Most Recently Active" one, limited to a fixed no. of Discussions, ordered by Time/Date of most recent Post, most New Discussions are visible only during the short time that they appear in the "New" Discussions listing.

As the latter is also of finite depth, the greater the rate of New Discussions, the less time one appears on that list. Countless Discussions now come & go with nary a Reply.

As for this Discussion in particular, it's appeal is a fairly narrow one; and, the subject matter is one in which many may have an interest sufficient for their reading it, but not feel both able & willing to debate. Only TR knows how many have actually read each of the posts here.

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