In his remarkable book Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman observes that,
"[S]trategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one's plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns."
My previous column discussed this dynamic, interactive quality of strategy. Rather than a fixed blueprint for action, strategy consists of a constant adjustment of ends and means as an adversary's actions open up possibilities and foreclose options. In this column, I want to address some of the pitfalls in reacting to our enemy's plans.
In a recent address to the nation, U.S. President Barack Obama observed that, "we should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That's what groups like [the Islamic State] want." Long and costly are relative terms; longer than what alternative? More costly than what action, and to what interests? But here I am more concerned with the implicit argument that we should avoid doing what our adversaries want us to do. That seems obvious, but is it?
The president may well have been correct that the Islamic State would like nothing better than a deployment of U.S. combat forces in Mesopotamia. Such a deployment would reinforce the narrative of Crusader attacks on Muslim societies and would inevitably lead to the deaths of innocent Muslim civilians. This would draw recruits not only from the invaded societies but from the citizens of the invading countries as well. It is often pointed out that the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 created the insurgencies in Iraq, which is at least half true, and that the Islamic State is itself a consequence of the coalition's failed occupation, which also has some elements of truth to it. Moreover, drawing the forces of the Islamic State's infidel enemy into face-to-face warfare on a substantial scale sets up the historic storyline of the most radical jihadist terrorists that Armageddon is at hand. After all, how can you have a cataclysmic battle if only one party attends?
But that doesn't entirely settle the matter. Just because your enemy wants you to do something, does it always follow that you should not?
The enemy may be wrong in his assessments. Hitler was sorely disappointed when Britain and France failed to respond with a declaration of war when German forces occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia in 1939. In retrospect, however, it might well have been in the Allies' favor to have done so, not least because their inaction solidified Hitler's control over the German High Command.
The enemy may be making decisions on an entirely different basis. Most decisions in the international sphere are driven by domestic considerations. A reckless adventure that quiets internal opposition and rallies popular opinion at home evaluates action on bases that are largely irrelevant to other states. So it was with Argentina's expedition in the Falklands in 1982.
Similarly, the state that is deciding how to respond — particularly if it is the United States — must be concerned about the consequences to alliance relationships that may not be directly implicated in a local conflict but are of the utmost importance for long-term interests. Moreover, pegging our strategies, even if in a negative way, to the objectives of our opponents surrenders the initiative to them.
The enemy may have an entirely different risk profile, desperately seeking gains that can come only from rash and imprudent chances. And finally, it is always possible that we may get the enemy's true desires wrong and in our wish to avoid doing "just what they want us to do" mistake what that actually is. Simply avoiding action that we believe the enemy desires is not as clever as it seems. It's like the old joke: the masochist says to the sadist, "Beat me, beat me," and the sadist replies, "… No."
The president's speech had many important elements. It is not accurate to say that it added or clarified nothing about American strategy in the wars on terror. Among other things, the president implied that the removal of President Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria is to be subordinated to our efforts to destroy the Islamic State. He also appeared to reverse his earlier acceptance of the ongoing efforts in the private sector to create encryption software that cannot be penetrated by U.S. law enforcement or intelligence. In the main, however, the address was devoted to two subjects: a change in the terrorists' tactics and what we should not do in response to this change.
With respect to the first subject, the president argued that the Islamic State and its ideological allies have accepted that they can no longer mount the complex attacks that result in large-scale atrocities and thus have turned to smaller-scale strikes like those in Paris and San Bernardino. This may be right; it may be that, even after the difficulties for the intelligence community imposed by the Snowden revelations, including some ill-considered Congressional action and decreased intelligence cooperation within the Alliance, the complex secret logistics required for a truly catastrophic attack are beyond the capabilities of the jihadist terrorist groups.
In fact it may be that the Islamic State, al Qaeda and the various forces associated with the terror networks do not want to provoke a large-scale American reaction.
But there may be another explanation. It may be that in our desire to avoid committing greater forces to the Middle East, we have persuaded ourselves that the Islamic State "wants us to do" something it does not wish us to do. In fact it may be that the Islamic State, al Qaeda and the various forces associated with the terror networks do not want to provoke a large-scale American reaction. Perhaps what they want is simply to terrorize the populations of the various Allied societies with small-scale attacks, attacks that spread alarm but are insufficient to goad us into large-scale reprisals, at least until the terrorists acquire the weapons for something really horrific and can practice their own "containment."
After each of the various small-scale incidents that have occurred in Britain, France and the United States, the immediate reportage has cried "lone wolf" — the "self-radicalized terrorist" described by officials after the Dec. 2 attack — but this almost always turns out not to be the case. Later, the martyrdom video surfaces or in the case of San Bernardino, a Facebook profession of allegiance. We have to consider the possibility that the young couple who murdered their friends and colleagues in California had no intention to do so when they began acquiring the formidable arsenal they amassed, only a fraction of which they used in the killings. It seems as likely that the trigger was pulled by their superiors who sacrificed them by ordering them to act swiftly in response to events in Syria. That would account for the doctor's appointments, the various quotidian plans the couple appears to have made, and the happenstance of the target. It would also explain the haste and energy the couple devoted to destroying their communications.
With respect to the second subject of the president's speech — what we should avoid doing — he is surely right. It's true that, as a general matter, we don't win wars by lecturing the public on how to behave well but this isn't that kind of war. In the wars on terror, protecting our tolerant, multicultural, law-abiding civil society is more important strategically than any drone we can deploy.
This home truth has been strangely distorted by the demand that we should call jihadist terrorism by the name "Islamic extremism." In fact, the Islamic State is not an extreme version of Islam any more than the off-key performance by an untutored and untalented violinist is an "extreme" version of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. The terrorists of the Islamic State are not scholarly imams who happen to take a fundamentalist view of Islamic doctrine. Many of them are former Baathist military operators who professed no intense religious convictions of any kind when they served Saddam Hussein; many are pathetic petty criminals like Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber, and lonely misfits like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who detonated a bomb in his underwear; many are sectarian murderers whose principal targets are other Muslims. The one thing they are not, whatever their devotion to the cause of violence, is a serious body of Koranic theology. They should not be flattered by the adjective "Islamic," nor should we implicitly disrespect the 1.5 billion Muslims who are just as appalled by these atrocities as we are.
I sometimes think the wars on terror will be the epochal war of the 21st century, just as the Long War among fascism, communism and parliamentarianism was the epochal war of the 20th century, comprising various wars beginning in 1914 and ending in 1990. The wars on terror will not be confined to any particular religion, much less any bizarre cult, and if we deceive ourselves on this point, we will be less capable of meeting the challenges that new epochal war will present.