The Dangers of Being the Only Superpower

Clausewitz, Iraq, and fourth-generation warfare

America is now at war with Iraq. 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--is 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. It has oil, of course, lots of it, but whoever controls that oil has to sell it, and it simply goes into the world oil "pool." It provides strategic leverage only if it is withheld, which the U.S. is not likely to do.

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 oilfields. The notion that an American-conquered Iraq can blossom into a Swiss-style democracy that will remake the Middle East comes from Cloud Cuckooland. If you want to see what democracy in that region would really mean for American interests, look at the Turkish Parliament's vote 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 for 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 regional 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 be not only 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.

Washington does not understand this kind of war, war fought outside the state structure. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War, gave states a monopoly on war. Then followed three "generations" of modern war: war of line and column tactics, the first generation; the second generation, developed by the French Army during and after World War I (and still practiced by the U.S. military today), which relied on firepower and attrition; and third-generation war, also called maneuver warfare, which was based on speed and rapid decision-making (the German blitzkrieg is an example). Fourth-generation war, which governments call "terrorism," is war waged by non-state entities such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. America's war on Iraq will provide it with a fertile breeding ground.

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 his famous On War, Clausewitz wrote:

"The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment 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.

Beyond the Arab and Islamic worlds, there is a yet broader strategic field on which the present war will play out. To see it, we must first understand what strategy itself means. The late Colonel John Boyd, who was probably the greatest military theorist America has produced, 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 was a better strategist than the Bush Administration in the run-up to this war. After the U.N. weapons inspectors renewed their work in Iraq, Saddam managed to forge de facto alliances against war with France, Germany and Russia. 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 found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--and thus no casus belli for the U.S.

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