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.
- A hegemon’s dilemma.
- How to eat soup with a knife?
- Who is attacking? Who is defending?
- Our response: attack!
- A better way: defend.
- Other posts in this series.
- 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.