Battles Won, Wars Lost
By William S. Lind | August 22, 2011
One of the rules of warfare is that a higher level dominates a lower. You can be brilliant tactically, but if you are outmaneuvered operationally, you lose. You can be consistently superior at the operational level, but if you are defeated strategically, you lose. That was Germany’s fate in both world wars.
You also lose if you sacrifice a more important goal for one that is less important. America has developed something of a habit of doing just that at the strategic level. Such topsy-turvy strategy explains a good deal of our failure in recent conflicts.
Perhaps the most egregious example was our war on Serbia during the Clinton administration. Following the fall of Communism in Russia, our highest strategic goal ought to have been reincorporating Russia into the West, just as Metternich reintegrated France into the Concert of Europe after the fall of Napoleon.
Instead, the Clinton White House launched an unprovoked war on Serbia, Russia’s historic ally, humiliating her in the process and utterly alienating Russian public opinion. As one Russian said at the time to my late colleague Paul Weyrich, “Your attack on Serbia showed us the Communists had been right about America.”
Our killing of Osama bin Laden is another example of putting a lesser goal above a more important one. His death was a triumph of justice but not of strategy. Its main strategic effect was to embarrass the Pakistani military and undermine its legitimacy. If it could not detect our raid coming in to get bin Laden, how could it detect one—American or Indian—penetrating Pakistani air space to grab their nuclear weapons? Because the military is one of the few national institutions in Pakistan that still has legitimacy, undermining it further weakened the state itself.
We cannot have a more important strategic goal in that region than maintaining a state in Pakistan, yet we consistently sacrifice it to a less important objective, winning the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. The continuing drone strikes on Pakistani soil prove the point. The April 29 New York Times reported that
the Pakistan Army’s leader had concluded that the drone campaign should end because it hurt the army’s reputation among the Pakistani public. … The Americans say the drones are more important than ever as a tool to staunch the flow of Taliban foot soldiers coming across the border to fight American and NATO forces.
Had Osama bin Laden known in his last moments that he would lose in Afghanistan but win in Pakistan, he would have died a happy man.
Why does Washington show such consistency in putting lesser strategic goals above higher ones? Hubris among the Establishment is part of the explanation. In the midst of the air campaign against Serbia, I asked a four-star U.S. general whom I had known for years and who was involved in most of the key meetings, “Don’t our people know the history of this area?” He replied, “They know it, but they don’t think it applies to them.”
Such hubris in turn is spawned by Washington’s transformation into a classic imperial court, within which all that counts is court politics. External reality is unimportant; pleasing those in power by saying whatever they wish to hear is the courtier’s route to success. A couple years ago, I said to my old boss Sen. Gary Hart over breakfast in Denver, “If you are a member of the Establishment and you call for more than five degrees rudder change in anything, you immediately cease to be a member of the Establishment.” He replied, “I’m exhibit A.”
Col. John Boyd, America’s greatest military theorist, used to say, “There are two kinds of people: people who want to do something, and people who want to be something.” Imperial courts are dominated by people who want to be something. Perhaps in divine retribution, that is all most of them know how to do: rise to become something. At the actual substance of strategy, they are incompetent—which matters not a whit at court. In fact, any skill at the substance of policy easily becomes a disadvantage at court because it can lead to saying things people further up the ladder do not wish to hear. At that point, your ladder becomes a chute.
And so Washington bungles on, winning less important battles at the expense of losing more important ones, and with them wars. Failure brings no reform: the Establishment just moves on to do the same thing in a new venue. A disconnected public could seemingly not care less. Don’t you know the game’s on? Indeed it is, and it is called “Decline and Fall.” Buy gold, young man, buy gold.