Self-Defeating Tactics

America’s future is being undermined by self-defeating foreign policy tactics.

The global struggle for ascendancy mercilessly discards the incompetent. Success requires a logical strategy and a vast array of linked tactics of some degree of rationality. Americans should be concerned about the dimness with which our officials during this sad new century have seen any logical strategy and the incompetence of their tactics, which seem almost regularly to emphasize one tactic in isolation and to implement even that one badly. With such a self-defeating approach, one can easily achieve defeat by oneself; enemies are a redundancy.

The U.S. is rich and comfortable, albeit less so than 20 years ago. It is also complex, in terms of economics, infrastructure, finance, consumer supply and demand, energy, communications, health, environment, and food safety. Complexity offers enormous gains…but at the price of requiring the careful maintenance of a delicate and finely tuned set of interlocked and ever-shifting components. In other words, it is easy to attack.

As a plot against America, 9/11, to be frank, was nothing: a narrow and local attack apparently designed to send a message of protest against U.S. military and financial policy, as well as the more significant intent to trap the U.S. in a no-win war against Islam. The next attack will be more imaginative and more costly; the extreme vulnerability of our highly tuned domestic system makes that almost inevitable.

We have a lot to lose and will lose it unless we learn to defend ourselves effectively, but an effective defense requires an understanding of the full array of available and required tactics. If, for example, the U.S. is perceived to commit an outrageous, intentional war crime, regardless of the particular battlefield result, it suffers a significant defeat in the overall struggle for survival. A barbaric enemy gambling everything on an attempt to overthrow the ruling system may win simply by causing chaos, but a superpower claiming the right to make the rules and enjoying a highly complex socio-economic system wins by balancing the tactic of selective military violence against a host of much more suitable tactics, of which the reputation for moral superiority is probably the most valuable. Bin Laden appears to have understood this, for his attack was perfectly designed to infuriate Americans into voluntarily descending into the gutter of barbarism, lowering themselves to the level of the jihadis, i.e., handing the jihadis the equality they could never have seized through their own violence.

Lowering ourselves to the level of our opponents is not the only common self-defeating tactical error we seem to make on a regular basis. Another is the failure to follow through with tactical linkage. Assume that military strikes are required; almost never will such strikes in isolation be successful in giving victory to the side representing civilization. Civilization is the antithesis of war. Recovery from cancer requires not just chemotherapy but good nutrition and a clean environment. Civilization requires a network of healthy, cooperative societies. For every ounce of warfare, we need a pound of social reconstruction. The battle of Kobani was not a U.S.-Kurdish victory because Kobani has not become a safe city in which Kurds can reconstruct their civilian lives economically and militarily secure. As goes Kobani, so goes the Mideast.

Perhaps as important as implementing the chosen tactic of the moment in the context of the rest of the tactical toolbox is consistency. Helping a new ally win a battle matters far less than establishing a reputation for consistency and reliability: set a policy, then defend it. Help an ally for clearly expressed reasons and avoid abruptly betraying it for some short-term profit. Adopt policies for consistent reasons. A no-fly zone is not a policy. It has meaning only to the degree it rests upon a set of tactics that give it meaning: stop aerial aggression by all means, but follow through with the military aid, economic aid, and ground forces necessary to enable society inside the no-fly zone to thrive. Make the no-fly zone a symbol of what life could be like for the region at war if “our side” won.

Fighting the battle for civilization and winning, one village at a time, is a great goal. One alternative is admitting we do not have the competence to do this and staying out of the fight. A second alternative is to enter the fight only to pour gasoline on the raging fire. That last alternative is the worst for that is the approach that not only intensifies the chaos the enemy wants to create but raises the likelihood of getting ourselves burned along with our adversaries and all the many innocent bystanders. “Do no harm” applies to practicing foreign policy as much as to practicing medicine.

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