Will we repeat our mistakes in the Middle East & lose, or play defense & win?

Summary:  The West’s post-9/11 wars in the Middle East have run down, but our involvement in Syria’s civil war and the attacks by radical Islamists in American — and the far larger Paris attacks — have begun a new phase in this clash of civilizations. Before we attack, repeating the mistakes of the past 15 years, let’s consider an alternative strategy: play defense, and win.

Nike, goddess of victory
Goddess of Victory. Emanuel Lakozas at DeviantArt.



  1. A hegemon’s dilemma.
  2. How to eat soup with a knife?
  3. Who is attacking? Who is defending?
  4. Our response: attack!
  5. A better way: defend.
  6. Other posts in this series.
  7. For more information.

(1)  A hegemon’s dilemma

In chess, a zugzwang means that you believe that all moves weaken your position. It often results from a lack of imagination, an inability to break free from one’s patterns of perception and analysis.

Hegemons often see themselves as in a zugwang, where change itself threatens to their status as #1. For example, Britain responded poorly to Germany’s aggressive aspirations in the decades before WWI, rather than seeking to integrate them into a growing and prosperous multi-polar 20th century.

America’s major 21st century challenge might be cultural as well as geopolitical, as fundamentalist Islam challenges not just American dominance in the Middle East but the West’s cultural supremacy. We’ve reacted to the resulting insurgencies by waging war — treating fundamentalist Islam as an evil ideology, like the NAZI’s. With the usual perversity of events, we’ve succeeded only in toppling secular regimes (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and perhaps Syria), who are replaced by Islamic regimes) — and setting the region afire.

To find a better solution let’s look at T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), a handbook for insurgents written during the Arab Revolt of WWI.

“The Turks were stupid; the Germans behind them dogmatical. They would believe that rebellion was absolute, like war, and deal with it on the analogy of war. Analogy in human things was fudge, anyhow; and war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”

We have been “stupid and dogmatical” in our wars since 9/11, dealing with these insurgencies “on the analogy of war.” We are like the pitiful fool “eating soup with a knife”, spilling most of each attempt.

Does America have so few strategic options that we must, in effect, attempt to eat soup with a knife? Lawrence wrote about his experience fighting with locals waging a successful insurgency. American hawks see it as advice for doing the opposite — fighting insurgencies in foreign lands.

The hawks ignore the simple truth of Lawrence’s insight: you cannot eat soup with a knife unless you first change the situation.

light bulb

(2)  How to eat soup with a knife?

When training Boy Scouts I urged them to learn from characters in the stories they know. How would Captain Kirk have reacted as Captain of the Titanic? How would he respond if given a knife and a bowl of soup? Ashe did in the The Kobayashi Maru Incident, he would change the conditions of the problem. Not by cheating; rather by expanding the rules so that he could win. The same logic applies to Lawrence’s thought-experiment.

Is there an eatable thickening agent available? You can use powder or meal made from a grain, nut, or vegetable root (e.g. flour, cornstarch, oatmeal). Or use Arrowroot, gelatin products, or pudding. Make your own thickener. For example, find a starchy vegetable (e.g., cattail pollen or roots, potatoes). Dump it in the soup, stir until thick, take your knife in hand, and enjoy.

Do you have access to a freezer? Or perhaps it is cold outside. Put your knife in the soup. Freeze the soup. In a few hours enjoy your soup “popsicle.” There are a hundreds ways to win at this small problem.

We need such new ideas since we consistently lose (like everybody else) when fighting foreign insurgencies since Mao brought 4th generation warfare to maturity after WWII. Let’s start by re-thinking the conflict.

World Order under attack
Time is not the jihadist’s friend.

(3)  Who is attacking? Who is defending?

We are attacking fundamentalist Islam with the irresistible weapon of Western culture. We are the Pied Piper, stealing their children. They respond by working to replace local rulers (often corrupt and incompetent) with fundamentalist regimes they believe can fight the West. That these Middle Eastern rulers are is icing on their cake. Whether America’s cultural “aggression” is deliberate or inadvertent is not relevant to those defending against it.

From our perspective, fundamentalist Islam is just another ideological foe, as Tony Corn explained in “World War IV as Fourth-Generation Warfare” (Policy Review, January 2006).

“Ideologically, Salafism is to Jihadism what Marxism is to Leninism, even though psychologically, the jihadist disease appears closer to Nazism (i.e., pathological fear of, rather than faith in, modernity, along with virulent anti-Semitism). Just as the communist project of yesterday was summed up by the proverbial slogan “the Soviets, plus electricity,” the jihadist project today is best captured by “the sha’ria, plus WMD.” Like the Communist International, the Salafist International has its Bolsheviks and its Mensheviks, its Bernsteins and its Kautskys, and even its Leninesque Qutb’s Milestones {like Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?}.

“As for the debates over what priority to give to the “far enemy” vs. the “near enemy,” they are but the equivalent of yesterday’s clashes between Trotskyite partisans of “permanent revolution” and Stalinist supporters of ‘socialism in one country.'”

Like it or not, so far the jihadists are doing well — more with than despite our help. As infidel foreigners, our assistance drains legitimacy from local rulers. Our incompetent efforts at 4GW (“COIN”) further alienate their people, as we employ our trinity of warfare: popular front militia, firepower on civilians, sweep and destroy missions (relabeled in each war to seem new).

That’s the small picture, that of the news. A larger view suggests that their defense is hopeless: when handicapping the clash of civilizations, bet on the West to win big. Like the Borg in Star Trek, assimilation is inevitable. That only makes them fight more strongly.

As is so often the case in history, this conflict is structural. We will not change ourselves to suit others. It’s our culture and their problem. How should we respond to their attacks on western nations and on our allies in the Middle East?

Strategy as chess

(4)  Our response: attack!

Although we are defending in terms of geopolitics (some disagree about our intentions, with reason), our military leaders belong to the The Cult of the Offense. As in WWI, it’s quite mad. Since Mao brought the methods of 4GW to maturity after WWII, foreign armies have an almost unbroken record of failure against insurgencies. Yet we keep attacking, applying a Darwinian Ratchet to our opponents that eliminates the stupid and slow to learn — leaving only the most fit to fight us.

The result of our post-9/11 offensive moves has been to replace the secular regimes in Iraq, Libya, and perhaps Syria with Islamic regimes — and set the region afire. After Paris the West plans more attacks, acting out the old aphorism of Alcoholics Anonymous (people who know all about dysfunctionality): “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

It’s a high-risk strategy. Athens held a winning position similar to ours, and threw it away in an imprudent war — as described by Brad DeLong (prof economics, Berkeley) in “History as Tragedy: The Peloponnesian War“…

“Actually, we do know one important, big thing about the Classical Greek world that Thucydides did not know … There is a deep, powerful sense in which time was on the side of Athens and its empire. Each decade that the war between Sparta and Athens remained cold rather than hot was a decade for metics and immigrants to the Geek world to think whether they wanted to live in Spartan-allied oligarchies dominated by a closed guild of landowners, or in Athenian-allied places where the (male, citizen) demos ruled and where there was much more growth, commerce, trade, and opportunity.

“Each decade that the war between Sparta and Athens remained cold rather than hot was a decade for rich Spartiates to marry the daughters of other rich Spartiates, and for poor Spartiates to find that they could no longer afford the Spartan lifestyle and so drop out of the citizen body — and of the main line of battle. By 350 Sparta could — this is a guess — put only one-fifth as many professional hoplite soldiers into the line of battle as it could have two centuries before. A policy of postponing the showdown — even if one of “apparently limitless forbearance” — was a policy of greatly increasing the relative strength of the Athenian side.”

There is a better response, more effective with less risk.

Defense Wins Championships

On War
Available at Amazon.

(5)  A better way: defend

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. … I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.” {Book 1, Chapter 1.}

“Thus in a truly absurd way it has become an axiom that defensive battles should really be confined to warding off attacks and not directed to the destruction of the enemy. We hold this to be one of the most harmful errors, a real confusion between the form and the thing itself, and we maintain unreservedly that in the form of war which we call defense, the victory is not only more probable but may also attain the same magnitude and efficacy as in the attack …”  {Book 6 “Defense”, Chapter 9.}

— From Carl von Clausewitz’s On War

WWII taught us that interventions in foreign wars were necessary, even inevitable. But not all foes are like the NAZIs. Now the wheel of history has rolled to a new era in which the US should return to its non-interventionist roots, a defensive strategy.

  • We can help allies with money, aid, advice, and other forms of support. Strong governments almost always defeat insurgents.
  • We can promise State attackers that they will receive devastating retaliatory strikes. Game theory suggests that “tit for tat” is one of the most effective tactics. Assured Destruction, extended over the full range of war, nuclear to conventional, probably will prove to be the winning tactic in the 21st century (as it was in the 20th after WW2). This assumes we’re not already attacking them, so that their strikes are retaliation on us.
  • Terrorists without clear State sponsorship — such as the anarchists (1878-1920), the less effective but still deadly leftists of the 1960s -1970s, and today’s jihadists — provide few targets for retaliation, but can be dealt with by police and security agencies. As all of these groups learned to their sorrow (including the real al Qaeda, not the nationalist insurgencies using that brand name).

Another advantage of defense is that it often gains the moral high ground. Popular sympathy usually goes to the defender, as most nations are more likely to be defenders than attackers. The more high ground has proved decisive in wars from the American Revolution to the USSR-Afghanistan War. Whereas attacking tends to increase social cohesion in the society attacked — especially when the attackers are foreign infidels.

There is no perfect safety outside Heaven. But we can achieve reasonable security for far less than we spend today, freeing funds desperately needed elsewhere.

Shifting from power projection — with frequent foreign interventions — to defensive strategy poses serious structural challenges. The military-industrial complex would need incentives to change its vision. Our Defense Department would require deep retraining in order to deserve its name.

The rewards will be large costs savings, fewer Americans sacrificed in futile foreign wars, and equivalent or perhaps greater security. Making the change takes only the involvement of the American people: will and effort. We can do it.

We might find that if we attack others less, we will be attacked less. A defensive strategy makes time our ally, as western culture slowly but surely erodes away the fundamentalist vigor of our foes.

Disciple Caine: Master, do we seek victory in contention?
Master Kan: Seek rather not to contend.
Disciple Caine: But shall we not then be defeated?
Master Kan: We know that where there is no contention, there is neither defeat nor victory. The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives.

— From episode #1 of the television show “Kung Fu” (1972)

(6) Other posts in this series

(7)  For more information

Many people have written about the advantages of a defensive strategy, such as William Lind in “A Strategic Defense Initiative” (The American Conservative, 22 November 2004), Douglas MacGregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) in “Refusing battle – The alternative to persistent warfare“ (Armed Forces Journal , April 2009), and Martin van Creveld in A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind (2015).

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about the Middle East, about Islam, and especially these about our mad offensive strategy, and how we can play defense and win…

4 thoughts on “Will we repeat our mistakes in the Middle East & lose, or play defense & win?”

  1. Here’s a freely available copy of Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100111h.html

    Also, isn’t it weird that the word “spartan” has come to mean “without comforts”, and that the Spartans are now seen as freedom fighters (see: 300), when they were actually aristocrats? Do you supposet that our inability to understand the Spartans might be related to our rather Athenian inability to fight the long war?

    1. Tice,

      That’s a great point about the Spartans. Mad Magazine‘s parody of “300” perfectly captured the insanity of seeing the Spartans as freedom fighters. After the Spartan King gave his inspiring speech about freedom, a Spartan ran up: “Sorry I missed the speech. I was whipping my slaves.”

      Trivia note: America, like Athens, is well equipped to fight and win the long war. We, like Athens, might just prefer not to think — and so lose the long war.

    2. There’s a curious little phrase I know, but whose origin I have forgotten: “There is a war going on for your mind; if you are thinking, you are winning.” If America prefers not to think, then someone else gets to win.

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