William Lind: why America’s foreign policy fails so often

Summary: William Lind explains how our geopolitical failures result not from our foes, but are self-inflected. We refuse to learn about strategy – and from our defeats.

Victory Is The Goal


Losing at the Moral/Strategic Level

By William S. Lind.
From Traditional Right • 1 November 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.

One of war’s few rules is that failure at a higher level negates the successes at lower levels.  This led to Germany’s defeats in both World Wars; she usually won at the tactical and operational levels but lost at the strategic level.  The result was lost victories.

To look at our own situation today, we need to add John Boyd’s three levels of war, physical, mental, and moral, to the classic levels of tactical, operational, and strategic.  If we plot these categories on a grid, we see that the highest and most powerful level of war is the moral/strategic.  If we look at what we are doing around the world, we see that at the moral/strategic level we are taking actions likely to result in our defeat.

Three examples come readily to mind.  The first is North Korea.  President Trump made a major breakthrough toward ending the danger of another Korean War by meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.  Unfortunately, since that meeting, the President’s advisors have worked to undercut his achievement.  Kim Jong-un wants the U.S. to declare a formal end to the Korean War, which at present is halted only with an armistice.  South Korea favors it, Mr. Trump is said to favor it, and we risk nothing by giving it.  But the President’s advisors are working against it.  Their position is that we should give North Korea nothing until it completes denuclearization.  That treats North Korea as something it is not, a defeated enemy.  Not surprisingly, North Korea is rejecting that approach, which gives the foreign policy Establishment what it wants — a continuation of the Korean stand-off and all the budgets and careers that hang from it.

The second example is so bizarre it defies belief.  Washington has placed new sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals because China bought weapons from Russia.  Huh?  What business it is of ours who China buys weapons from?  Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1950 China has bought most of the weapons it has imported from Russia.  Of course it is going to continue to do so.  It is not as if we want to sell weapons to China; we don’t.   This action is so outlandish and absurd it turns the U.S. into Don Quixote, a madman wandering the world tilting at windmills.  Who does Washington think it is?

The third case is similar, in that it is an attempt to dictate to other sovereign countries in matters that are none of our business.  In one of his few serious foreign policy blunders, the President withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran.  Wisely, the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese are working together to keep Iran in and thus avoid a war in the Persian Gulf, with all that would mean for the world’s oil supply.  Washington has responded by threatening any foreign company or bank that does business with Iran.  The October 10 New York Times quoted President Trump’s court jester, John Bolton, as saying, “We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anyone else.”  Again, who do we think we are to tell Europe or anyone else whom they may trade with?  If the EU had a backbone, which it does not, it would forbid any and all European companies to capitulate to unilateral American sanctions.

Each of these cases represents something history has seen all too often, usually from countries that were past their peak as powers and on the downhill slide: the arrogance of power.  We are playing the swaggering bully (just before his nose gets bloodied), wandering around the playground telling everyone else what to do.  It doesn’t go over well.

But each case is more than that: it is a self-inflicted defeat at the moral/strategic level, the highest and most powerful level of conflict.  Morally, it turns us into Goliath (a rather weak-kneed Goliath, given our military record), someone everyone fears but also hates and looks for a chance to get back at.  Strategically, we are pushing China, Russia, and now Europe too, together against us.  If, as Boyd argued, strategy is a game of connection and isolation, we are connecting everyone else and isolating ourselves.

Teddy Roosevelt famously urged America to talk softly and carry a big stick.  Instead, we are yelling for all we’re worth while waving a broken reed, a military that can’t win, and that soon, thanks to feminization, won’t even be able to fight.  That is not likely to end well.


Editor’s comment

For a wonderful example of America following the mad path that Lind criticizes, see the words of General Scott Miller – who on September 2 took command of our war in Afghanistan (Resolute Support Mission).

“We are more in an offensive mindset and don’t wait for the Taliban to come and hit [us], So that was an adjustment that we made early on. We needed to because of the amount of casualties that were being absorbed.” {NBC News.}

This has been our strategy, in various forms, since we invaded Afghanistan. Three years ago I wrote about the US military’s cult of the offense and why we’re losing the long war. It is a folly that they cannot see – and refuse to learn from its failure. This has been their way of war since Vietnam.

“At an early intergovernmental meeting {1962} on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong. But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“’Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,’ answered Kelleher.”

— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

William Lind

About the author

William S. Lind’s director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. He has a Master’s Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 to 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 to 1986. See his bio at Wikipedia

Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (1985), co-author with Gary Hart of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (1986), and co-author with William H. Marshner of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (1987).

He’s perhaps best known for his articles about the long war, now published as On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009. See his other articles about a broad range of subjects…

  1. His posts at TraditionalRight.
  2. His articles about geopolitics at The American Conservative.
  3. His articles about transportation at The American Conservative.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about military strategy in theory & practice, about William Lind’s work, about ways to reform our militaryabout our long war, about military strategy, about our incompetent senior generals, and especially these…

  1. Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win — about the two kinds of insurgencies (we’re fighting the kind we can’t win).
  2. Will we repeat our mistakes in the Middle East & lose, or play defense & win? — Ignore the book. This tells you how to eat soup with a knife. That’s how to win playing defense.
  3. Our generals reveal why we lost in Afghanistan, and will continue to lose.
  4. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  5. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  6. Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.
  7. Why America Loses Every War It Starts.

Essential reading to understand modern war

The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz by Martin van Creveld.

Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts by Harlan Ullman (Naval Institute Press (2017).

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Rupert Smith.

Transformation of War
Avilable at Amazon.
"Anatomy Of Failure" by Harlan Ullman.
Available at Amazon.


11 thoughts on “William Lind: why America’s foreign policy fails so often”

  1. From the Art of War about 500 BC:

    Detail Assessment and Planning (Chinese: 始計) explores the five fundamental factors (the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership, and management) and seven elements that determine the outcomes of military engagements. By thinking, assessing and comparing these points, a commander can calculate his chances of victory. Habitual deviation from these calculations will ensure failure via improper action. The text stresses that war is a very grave matter for the state and must not be commenced without due consideration.

    Don Quixote indeed. We don’t even learn from ancient texts, much less modern variations. If you can’t even get the basics right, just what do you have to crow about. Or be a bully.

  2. The reality of: “a self-inflicted defeat at the moral/strategic level” is we never had any reasonable strategy and we’ve lost any morality since the conclusion of Korean War; so we have nothing to win, but the profits of the military/security/industrial cabal and carrier advancement of our top commanders — and that we always “win” pretty handily…

  3. Again, Mr. Lind lays it out for a simpleton like me to comprehend. As usual, the Generals and elite ignore Mr. Lind. We know why.

    This reads a lot like Van Creveld with the Goliath analogy.

    I used to get into arguments with my self admitted Socialist Mom over Iraq and Afghanistan. She even called the Bushes Nazis ( Dresden) and wanted to leave Nazi America! She faught them during WW2 as a member of a resisting family. When she said America is bullying like Nazis something clicked because of you and Martin Van Creveld. The healing began.

    I owe you.

    As I was reading your older posts about reforming America, I ran across your Blue Star Mothers post. Your recommendation is taken to heart. As a member and supporter of American Legion and AMVETS, they and USO can also use my help. I shall do so.

    I obviously agree with Mr. Pittman’s comment.

    Best regards

  4. “If the EU had a backbone, which it does not, it would forbid any and all European companies to capitulate to unilateral American sanctions.”

    No. Indeed, Brussels would like to do that but it cannot because (most) European nations are still under the rule of law and one of its core concepts is “freedom of contract” which means that any European company can decide by itsellf if it wants to jeopardize its US business for its Iranian business.

    Of course, Brussels could embargo the US, but again there is much more money on that side.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “which means that any European company can decide by itsellf if it wants to jeopardize its US business for its Iranian business.”

      The boundaries of the EU’s power over its member nations are vague and elastic. If they wanted to prevent trade with Iran, they probably could do so. It is not a limited government, like the US (and in practice the Federal government’s powers have proven less “limited” than the Founders intended, for good or ill).

      “Brussels could embargo the US”

      That’s functionally the same as what you said the EU could not do with Iran.

  5. Several points:

    1. The EU has no power, no legal basis in any of its constituting treaties whatsoever, no executive organs to force any person or company in its member states to contract for one deal and not for another as long as those deals are lawful.

    2. That is “freedom of contract” and protected by European law and the EU member states constitutions.

    3. The EU has of course the tools and the treaty obligation – it is its raison e’etre – to shape the European market by laws and regulatory efforts. The power it has in here is defined by several treaties that are complex and may at times seem vague and elastic, but that is the case with any living constitution. Still, the EU is bound by treaties that are laws in its member states, which are in turn bound by their constitutions.

    4. It is therefore strictly a limited government.

    5. Again, “the EU” could make laws to embargo the US or Iran (if the majority of its member states would agree, that is not just “Brussels” but its member nations; one always make clear if one means just “Brussels” or the whole of the EU). But it still could not command any company or person to do business with Iran.

    6. What is so really sad about this thread is that Mr. Lind writes about reasons why American policy fails so often and then in one very sentence commits its main forreign policy sin: Treating foreign nations or peoples as peoples of “lesser law” that is as people who do not value, understand, or cherish the rule of law. And of course, of their laws that is.

    7. This is actually a sentiment I noticed some time ago in this blog and was the reason why I stopped reading it for some time. Europeans, even continental Europeans, have definitily an understanding of the rule of law and are not as you once wrote deficient in it, they are not morally retarded, “lesser people”.

    8. This notion is of course very convenient for a global hegemon when it is looking for a justification to impress its will on its clients or vessel; the “peasants” dont deserve better and wouldn’t value anyway … I guess that is why its politician, journalists, and bloggers are spreading it.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      (1) “The EU has no power, no legal basis in any of its constituting treaties whatsoever”

      What is the basis for that confident statement? You comment implies that you are an attorney specializing in European law, or have in hand some authoritative article about this.

      (2) “It is therefore strictly a limited government.”

      Both the EU and US have excised power far exceeding that originally envisoned. That growth is why they are both said to no longer be “limited governments.”

      (3) “What is so really sad about this thread is that Mr. Lind writes about reasons why American policy fails so often and then in one very sentence commits its main forreign policy sin”

      First, that’s silly. It was a semi-humorous one-liner. Second, I doubt any foreign policy expert agrees with you. That’s quite an odd belief.

  6. I was wrong in one thing: the “EU” tends of course very much to be big government, not limited government. But it still works on the principle of the rule of law.

    I will try to make my orginal point clear in one example: The EU could make a crude law that would forbid import of any other than Persian (Iranian) carpets (I believe that would need consultation with the member states but never mind). It could make another silly law that requires everyone to have a big flushy carpet in his living room for some spurious reasons of let’s say, child protection.

    It could however not in principle forbid a European citizen/company to manufacture carpets as long as it has not completely outlawed carpets (but then no Persian carpets either). Well it could invent a lot of heinious regulation: It might specify technical properties for yarn and dye that are only matched by imports from Persia, at least until somebody in the EU manages to copycat them … In addtion, it could force the company to hire a carpet-weaver master-craftsman. Again, I am not sure how much of this Brussels could do alone, or when it would need a qualified or even unanimous vote of the EU’s member states.

    This way it would have forced every European citizen with a home to buy either a Persian or an EU carpet. Mean. Sad. Big government. Totally possible.

    But it could not by any means force somebody who once walked in a shop for carpets imported form Iran, to buy one there. He could still buy one made in the EU or – in case he already has a carpet – save the money to buy an American car (assume that the current trade issues are resolved). That is the core of freedom of contract.

    The general assumption (sorry no good link) is that the freedom contract underlies the four freedoms of the Europen market. But if not, then in Germany we still have Grundgesetz and BGB. Regrettably in German:


    That is why the statement from Mr. Lind, “If the EU had a backbone, which it does not, it would forbid any and all European companies to capitulate to unilateral American sanctions” does not work. It might be meant humorously but it ignores freedom of contract of its citizens. Again I have no link (I guess it was in Spiegel Online): there were indeed noises out of Brussels (and/or Paris) that it would have liked to do so, but it came to nothing …

    I know I am making somewhat of a fuss, but in the conservative/libertrarian Anglosphere I very often come across the notion that the EU is “lawless”. It may be overbearing, or sometimes even silly or follow entrenched interests, but it works on basis of the rule of law.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “I know I am making somewhat of a fuss”

      Thank you for your reply. Since you cite no authoritative sources for your big bold confident claims, nor any relevant credential of your own, I’ll apply rule one: disregard big bold confident claims about technical matters unless some foundation is given.They are usually made up.

      People have posted over 50,000 comments here, and I’ve found Rule One to almost always be appropriate. No more making stuff up. Further comments will be moderated. Anything with sources directly supporting your claims will be posted.

  7. Actually Sir, I have been dead wrong.

    Again the original quote from William Lind: “If the EU had a backbone, which it does not, it would forbid any and all European companies to capitulate to unilateral American sanctions”

    The EU did exactly that by putting the blocking statute again into effect:


    Money quote: “It also forbids EU persons from complying with those sanctions, unless exceptionally authorised to do so by the Commission in case non-compliance seriously damages their interests or the interests of the Union.”

    Blocking statute in detail, original from 1996, update annex from Jun 8th, 2018:


    Best journalistic evaluation I found is however in German. In case you want to run it through google translate:


    I admit to be somewhat baffled because it contradicts what I know as “Vertragsfreiheit” (freedom of contract) from German civil law. This is at least a new “Kontrahierungszwang” (obligation to contract). We would need an English text book on the “Buergerliches Gesetzbuch” here, best remedy is indeed wikipedia and the public judgements of the German constitutional court (just in case you want to run it through Google translate):

    http://www.servat.unibe.ch/dfr/bv008274.html #at paragraph number 212 on the right side
    http://www.servat.unibe.ch/dfr/bv008274.html #at paragrpah number 142

    I am however not aware of any implementations of penalites by Germany as stipulated by the EU Guidance Note in paragraph 9 (second link form above). This means that it can never end up at a German court – in case a German company chooses not comply to it but to the US sanctions on the basis of “Vertragsfreiheit” – as there is no “Geschaedigter” (aggrieved party) yet.

    My sincere excuse for my transgessions and best regards,

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      You are now among the most elite rank of commenters on the FM website. A large fraction of those 50 thousand plus comments contain factual errors to which I’ve given corrections. Only a microscopic fraction have admitted their error. They either given new false statements (the usual response of conservatives) or reply with labels (the facts are “racist” or whatever).

      You are in a special elite category because you did your own research on your comment, and admitted your mistake. I’m impressed!

      Thank you for commenting.

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