July 1, 2006  

Why Clausewitz had it backward

Even those who have never read a line written by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military philosopher, accept as truth his dictum that “War is simply a continuation of policy with other means.” Yet, that statement was only superficially true for the European world in which Clausewitz lived, fought and wrote, and it never applied to the American people, for whom war signified a failure of policy.

To characterize the conduct of other civilizations and states, from the bygone Hittite and Assyrian empires to today’s Islamic heartlands, China or Russia, Clausewitz’s nouns would have to be reversed: “Policy is simply a continuation of war with other means.”

Conflict, not peace, is the natural state of human collectives. We need not celebrate the fact but must recognize it. If peace were the default condition of humankind, wouldn’t history look profoundly different? Thousands of years of relentless slaughter cannot be written off as the fault of a few delinquents. Human beings aggregated by affinities of blood, belief or culture are inherently competitive, not cooperative, and the competition is viscerally — and easily — perceived as a matter of life and death. Pious declarations to the contrary do not change the reality.

Our blindness to this fundamental and enduring principle — that all of a state’s nonmilitary actions seek to achieve the ends of warfare through alternative means — leaves us strategically crippled, needlessly vulnerable and wastefully ineffective. Only our wealth, size and raw power redeem our strategic incompetence sufficiently to allow us to bumble forward. We continue to regard warfare as something profoundly different from all other official endeavors, as an international breakdown and a last resort (occasional military adventurism notwithstanding), but similar attitudes exist only in a core of other English-speaking countries. Elsewhere, the competition between governments, cultures, civilizations and religions is viewed as comprehensive and unceasing, and it is waged — instinctively or consciously — with all the available elements of power.

We, not our antagonists, are the odd player out.

Regarding peace as the natural state of man, Americans not only defy history, but also donate free victories to competitors and enemies. Although capable of fighting ferociously when aroused, we deny that such conduct comes naturally to us, insisting that Sergeant York merely rose to the occasion. Heritage lasts, and ours was shaped initially by visions of a “peaceable kingdom,” a “New Jerusalem,” a “shining city on a hill.” Our earliest immigrant ancestors fled Europe’s wars and strife, determined to change not only their real-estate holdings, but also human nature. This continent was to become a new Eden, and each eruption of organized violence, from King Phillip’s War to Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been regarded by us as an anomaly.

Pressed hard enough, we make war brilliantly, but we never cease insisting that we are, by nature, peacemakers. This dualistic character has been addressed by a succession of scholars, but, to my knowledge, not one of them has suggested that warfare might be the human baseline: We do not rise to the occasion of war, but occasionally rise above war — remarkably often, in the exceptional American case.

Yet, it may be our predilection for prolonging even the most wretched peace that ultimately makes our wars so bloody. After a century of Euro-American conflicts, it requires little effort to make the case that the quickest way to inspire a shooting war may be to cling to the dream of peace in our time. Denying human bloodlust only permits it free rein while the “virtuous” look away. Idealistic American communists abetted Stalin’s crimes, while conservatives insisted that Hitler wasn’t our problem. Our domestic leftists insisted that cutting off all support for South Vietnam was the moral and humane thing to do — then, without so much as muttering “Oops!” they looked away from the massacres, tortures and mass incarcerations that swept Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after 1975. The massacre at Srebrenica can’t be blamed on Serb militias alone — Europe’s pacifists were the enablers. Darfur screams, while we stop up our ears.

The war college motto, “In peace, prepare for war,” takes us farther along the common-sense highway than platitudes to the effect that “War doesn’t change anything” (perhaps the least defensible claim ever made by a human being). But the truly crucial step is to realize that warfare never ceases but only shifts from one medium to others, playing now on the battlefield, later in the economic sphere, then in the cultural arena and, always, in the pulpit. It isn’t Gandhi or Bonhoeffer who looks prophetic, but Trotsky. Every economy is a war economy. And every successful businessman understands this intuitively, even if he has never thought or expressed it clearly. In this new age of wars of faith, the ecumenical obsession of the West is the religious equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement — just as Islamist crusaders are the equivalent of the prime minister’s German interlocutors.

Along with our nibbling at Clausewitz, we also snack on a few crumbs from Sun Tzu, repeating, without any real comprehension, that “to win without fighting is the highest form of victory.” Our assumption is that the maxim has a pacific, if not pacifist, sense: victory without bloodshed! Hurrah, hurrah!

Such an interpretation is profoundly wrong. Sun Tzu’s primary emphasis in that passage isn’t on avoiding battle — that’s secondary — but on winning by alternative means. The distinction is critical. Sun Tzu would have found Western peacekeeping operations incomprehensible: avoiding battle and losing.

Let’s put the wisdom of the amalgam of authors we now know only as “Sun Tzu” in a more accurate perspective: If you can spare your own army by destroying your enemy through hunger, thirst, plague, exhaustion, poverty, mutiny, assassination, subterfuge, lies or terror, let the enemy suffer and die while you profit from his agony, preserving your forces for battle against the next enemy, who might not be such a patsy. Sun Tzu would have regarded weapons of mass destruction as marvelous, practical tools — as long as only his side possessed them. Sun Tzu is Machiavelli without the conscience.

Even in our religious practice, we gloss over the merciless wars of the Old Testament, although Yahweh waged total war against Pharaoh’s Egypt with a succession of plagues (including germ warfare, balancing out the proto-nuclear effects achieved against Sodom and Gomorrah).

The message we refuse to learn is that aggression is necessary and ineradicable. The only hope of minimizing military aggression is to channel the impulse into other, less destructive channels. If we routinely fight with other elements of national power, accepting that we are endlessly at war with our competitors, we are apt to face far fewer military contests.

The conundrum is that our military strength makes our policy-makers lazy. Neglectful of other instruments and means of national power, they inevitably find themselves forced to resort to military solutions.

The Chinese understand perfectly that policy is an extension of war beyond the crudities of the battlefield, and they act upon the insight skillfully. The Russians grasp it, too, if less coherently. Muddling Lenin, Trotsky, bitter resentment and inherited paranoia, the Kremlin acts upon the perception clumsily (as with the depth-of-winter gas shut-offs to Ukraine and then Georgia). The French have acted as if engaged in comprehensive warfare with all other parties for four centuries, failing only because their means were never commensurate with their exaggerated ambitions.

Now our Islamist opponents, with their model of robust jihad, have made operational the idea of multidimensional struggle. They will do anything, in any sphere, to wound us as deeply as they can. In response, we debate the legality of tapping their phones.

This inversion of Clausewitz isn’t merely a matter of wordplay but highlights the need for a fundamental shift in our national outlook. We need not announce to the world that we believe we’re engaged in an endless war of all against all, but we must learn to act more resolutely in our own interests, to view our foreign endeavors in all policy-related spheres as aspects of an overarching strategy. The world may not be a zero-sum game (although our antagonists view it as such), but when the winnings are tallied, we want to leave the table with full pockets.

This doesn’t mean that we should pursue a statist, minutely planned approach to international activities. But we do need a sense that we have a national purpose that transcends the inherited boundaries of statecraft, and that our purpose is to remain dominant. At present, our formal national strategy is as narrow and unimaginative as it is insincere. It is, literally, nothing but words. Instead of working together for the common good, the various branches of our government (to say nothing of our business community) continue to undercut one another’s efforts. Citing improved cooperation between departments isn’t enough, given how abysmal it has been in the past. Our government needs to function as a team — something it has not done since the Second World War.

We do not need a comprehensive plan, only a comprehensive sense of mission.

We do, however, need to face the coldly cutthroat nature of the world in which we live, in which our ancestors lived and in which our descendants will continue to live. While awaiting the New Jerusalem, we need to recognize that the old one was blood-soaked (and the present one isn’t much better). There is nothing human collectives do more effectively than making war. If we want to prevent or limit wars, this means we must obtain the results of a successful war through other means.

To repeat a worn-but-wise phrase (this one attributed to Trotsky), “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

One of the most pathetic manifestations of our willed naïvete is our insistence on describing foreign states as our “friends.” Nations (and entire civilizations) do not have friends. They have allies, and those allies can change over time — just as yesterday’s enemies can become today’s allies. The British fought us twice (and not gently), after which we spent a century wondering whether we would have to fight again. Now, Britain is our closest military ally. During the Civil War, our most important diplomatic ally was imperial Russia; we later fought alongside Russia in its Soviet incarnation during World War II; and, in the wonk-Woodstock atmosphere of the early 1990s, American policy-makers insisted that the U.S. and the new, “democratic” Russia would be best pals forever. In the intervals between and after these brief periods of alliance and fellow feeling, we feared the global spread of Bolshevism, then dreaded a Soviet-launched nuclear holocaust, and now must contend with Moscow’s breathtaking lack of scruples, its revived paranoia, its appetite for blackmail, its affection for despotic regimes, its distaste for political freedom, its disregard of human rights — and its dangerous clumsiness in the international china shop (no pun intended). Is Russia now, or has it ever been, our “friend”?

Whatever one thinks of the decision to depose Saddam Hussein, the venomous pro-Baathist actions and anti-American rhetoric from long-standing European allies whose minor commercial interests were threatened should have brought us to our senses. While some allies are more dependable than others (because of common interests and shared values), and allies of varied worth can be desirable if the quid pro quos are not forbiddingly painful, we nonetheless must view the world as constantly in competition with us in every form of endeavor related to national power, wealth and influence. After all, the purpose of any alliance is to take advantage of the ally — if possible, to get the ally to sacrifice and suffer in your place.

This does not mean that we should endeavor to bankrupt or weaken every country on earth, but that we must recognize when it is in our interest to undercut the capabilities and confidence of a rival — even if that rival is a nominal ally.

The Beijing government understands this with such clarity that one can only admire the intellectual integrity of Chinese strategic thinking. Confronted with integrated, well-designed challenges from China in the economic, financial, diplomatic and — least important for now — military spheres, our response, to the extent that we may claim one, has been piecemeal, intermittent, inept and weak. Brilliantly, the Chinese have managed to harness the greed of influential elements within our own business community to prevent the implementation of policies by Washington that might reduce China’s artificial trade advantages and limit our own self-inflicted vulnerabilities. By allowing a relative handful of American corporations to grow rich, the Chinese have paralyzed our government’s ability to defend our workers, our industries and our economy. We have reached the point where lobbying veers into treason.

The Chinese view our relationship as a war conducted through nonmilitary means. Under such advantageous economic conditions, they are perfectly happy to refrain from shooting.

Defense contractors, as well as desperate generals and admirals, warn of a military confrontation with China. But why on earth would China want one when Beijing is gaining all it needs through far less painful means? Certainly, countries have a way of blundering into war — but China would much prefer to avoid a violent conflict with the U.S. Why fight us, when we make a gift of all that Beijing seeks through our tolerance for rigged exchange rates, our acceptance of the dumping of manufactured products, our refusal to live up to our rhetoric about human rights, our rejection of serious policies to protect our intellectual property and copyrights — and our outright gifts of technology?

This is the Sun Tzu that we cite so glibly yet fail to understand.

The Islamist threat is even fiercer — far fiercer — than China when it comes to exploiting policy as a continuation of war with other means. Saudi Arabia, for example, has engaged in a merciless religious war against the West for more than three decades, yet it has not only done so while convincing our national leaders, Republican and Democrat, that we’re “friends,” but has managed to gain the protection of America’s military on the cheap, even as it refuses meaningful cooperation with our forces. To preserve the profits of a handful of multinational oil companies, we protect a repellent, throwback regime that willfully created Osama bin Laden and his ilk. In country after country, I personally witnessed how Saudi money is used to spread anti-Western hatred (and to divide local societies), while America’s taxpayers fund a military prostituted to the defense of the degenerate House of Saud.

We’re not even mercenaries: Mercenaries at least get paid.

As for the Islamist terrorists, they’ve adopted a nonstate variant of the “total war” concept developed by Chinese military theorists. No front or sphere is off-limits. We are to be attacked wherever and however it is possible to do so. Indeed, a key lesson we should fear that the terrorists took away from 9/11 isn’t that Americans can be killed by the thousands, but that killing Americans by the thousands costs our economy trillions.

We debate the legitimacy of propaganda broadcasts (by other names, of course), while our terrorist enemies run rampant on the Internet; govern the content of our own television, radio and print news through their calculated actions; preach apocalyptic hatred around the world (even in our own country); and exploit our own laws to paralyze us. In response, we send a female political-campaign worker from Texas on a brief tour of the Middle East to “turn the situation around.” We not only lack a strategy — we lack a sense of reality.

Wishful thinking can’t win wars, and it won’t preserve peace. If only we could overcome our bias against honest thinking, we might find that accepting the thousands of years of evidence that government policies are a continuation of war with other means would result in the more effective use of those “other means” and, consequently, a less frequent requirement to go to war.

In one sense, the old American conviction that the advent of war confirms the failure of policy is true: We have to send our military to solve problems because we didn’t use the other tools of policy boldly or adeptly. Our antagonists, from Beijing to Baqubah, recognize that victory will require the uncompromising use of every available resource. We default to guns. Certainly, terrorists do not shrink from violence, but they view violence as a means, not a solution. The target of the suicide bomb isn’t really flesh and blood — it’s the video camera, that powerful, postmodern “other means” of securing a military advantage without possessing a military.

By refusing to instill a warlike spirit in other fields of our national policy, we only make “real war” inevitable.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of the new book “Never Quit The Fight.”