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A Warning from Clausewitz

A Warning from Clausewitz on 4GW

by WILLIAM S. LIND

An American war on Iraq now seems certain. Even if Saddam Hussein agrees to step down and go into exile, it is not clear that Washington would forgo the occupation of Iraq and the installation of an American military government. Wilsonianism is in full flower, in what is likely to prove a false spring.

As we watch events unfold, it may be useful to keep two points in mind. First, the center of gravity of this war — the place or places where a decision is likely to occur — are not in Iraq. As is also true of the war in Afghanistan, the centers of gravity of a war with Iraq are in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Of these three, Pakistan is the most important.

Strategically, Iraq is not a key to very much. One might argue that as Iraq goes, so goes Syria, but that is not saying a lot. Iraq is not a key to Iran; on the contrary, their rivalry goes back centuries. All Iraq means to Turkey is an increased threat of an independent Kurdish state and maybe a chance to grab Iraq’s northern oil fields. The notion that an American-conquered Iraq can blossom into a Swiss-style democracy that will remake the Middle East comes from Cloud Coockoo Land. If you want to see what democracy in that region would really mean for American interests, look at the Turkish parliament’s vote this weekend against allowing U.S. forces to invade Iraq from Turkey.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in contrast, are keys to many other things. Pakistan has nukes, Saudi Arabia controls world oil prices and Egypt offers Israel its only hope of some kind of (temporary) deal with the Arabs. If the pro-western regime in any of those nations falls, we will have suffered a strategic disaster. If they all go, our position in the region will collapse. The central strategic question, therefore, is what effect an American attack on Iraq will have on the stability and tenure of the Pakistani, Saudi and Egyptian regimes.

That leads to point number two: if and when American forces capture Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein, the real war will not end but begin. It will be fought in Iraq in part, as an array of non-state elements begin to fight America and each other. It will be fought in part in the rest of the Islamic world where the targets will not only be Americans but any local regime that is friendly to America. And, of course, it will be fought here in America, as the sons of Mohammed remind Americans that war is a two-way street.

This kind of war, Fourth Generation war, is something American and other state armed forces do not know how to fight. It is not going to go well, and among the casualties are likely to be the pro-American governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In short, an American victory over the state of Iraq (which is itself no sure thing) is more likely to lead to a strategic failure for America than to a strategic success.

In a somewhat more famous On War, Clausewitz wrote:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and Commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking: neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

With the invasion of Iraq, Washington is trying to turn a Fourth Generation war, a war with non-state entities, into a Second Generation war, a war against another state that can be conquered by the simple application of firepower to targets. If Clausewitz were still with us, I suspect he would warn that we are marching toward Jena, the battle where Napoleon decisively defeated Prussia in 1806.

The Spanish Road

John Boyd defined strategy as the art of connecting yourself to as many other power centers as possible while isolating your enemy from as many other power centers as possible. By that definition, Saddam Hussein appears to be a better strategist than the Bush Administration. Since the U.N. weapons inspectors renewed their work in Iraq, Saddam has managed to forge de facto alliances against war with France, Germany and Russia. He appears to be developing a positive connection with the inspectors themselves, with the U.N., and possibly with a majority of members of the U.N. Security Council. In contrast, the Administration in Washington has isolated itself from several of its oldest allies, provoked a serious split in NATO, and left itself very much on the defensive in the face of an inspections process that continues to find no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq — and thus no causus belli for the U.S.

Is this simply ineptitude, or is something larger going on here? I suggest the latter. For some time, elements in the Administration have been looking far beyond Iraq. They have spoken with increasing openness about re-making the entire Middle East, installing “democratic” governments that would be friendly not only to the United States but to Israel (I put “democratic” in quotes because genuinely democratic elections in most Middle Eastern countries would put radical Islamist regimes in power, which is not the outcome the new Wilsonians have in mind). America is to become not just “the only superpower” but a “hyperpower” which no one can hope to resist. China is to be cowed by an arms race she cannot afford; non-state elements will fall to American Special Forces; the U.N. will be a tool of American world dominance. America will be the new Britain, perhaps the new Rome.

Or, more likely, the new Spain. The Spanish analogy is not one most Americans will know, nor one the new Wilsonians will much care for. But it may prove apt.

The quest to create the “universal monarchy,” which was the earlier term for “the only superpower,” began in earnest with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the father of King Philip II of Spain. Charles ruled virtually all of Europe, except France. His kingdoms included Spain, which had the first true world empire. Fueled with the gold and silver of the New World and possessing an army so successful that it went unbeaten for more than a century, Spain offered Charles and then Philip the potential of ruling the world. You may recall that Armada business, when King Philip decided to end the impudence of an upstart island, England, and its Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. That did not go quite according to plan — somewhat like our current business in Afghanistan — but no matter; so rich was Spain that when the Armada was destroyed, Philip just built another one.

What finally stopped Hapsburg Spain and, later, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon and Germany under Hitler from establishing the universal monarchy was a fundamental characteristic of the international state system: whenever one nation attempts to attain world dominance, it pushes everyone else into a coalition against it. That dynamic, not any love for Saddam, is what is behind German and French opposition to the Bush Administration’s plan for war with Iraq. That is what is drawing others, including Russia, into supporting the French and the Germans. The Dutch ambassador to the United States was recently quoted in the Washington Post as saying he is concerned about a “monopoly of power without checks and balances. Self-assertiveness and an arrogance of power, that is a troubling thing.”

In fact, the Dutch ambassador is wrong: there are checks and balances, and we are now seeing them start to work. The failure of American strategy, and America’s growing self-isolation, are guaranteed so long as Washington aspires to world hegemony. The very nature of the international state system assures our quest for universal monarchy will fail, the same way all have failed. And our “unbeatable” military will find itself beaten, just as the Spanish army was beaten at Rocroi, by someone it thought would be a pushover.

The real question is not whether the American drive for world hegemony will succeed; it will not. The question is why we are attempting it in the first place.

WILLIAM S. LIND is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He can be reached at: slilienthal@freecongress.org