Friday, July 21, 2006

Worshipping on the altar of Clausewitz

Speaking of military theory, Robert D. Kaplan, whom, as journalists go, I have a lot of respect for, wrote a Wall Street Journal book review this week on Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias, by Richard H. Shultz Jr. and Andrea J. Dew. (Good job, Andrea! Whenever I see a PhD student second author to a major article or book, I strongly suspect that they actually wrote it.) I haven't yet had the chance to read Shultz' and Dew's book. But I have some remarks on Kaplan's review.

First, he's right about Hugo Grotius. Modern war is throwing traditional notions of international law out the window. Even Michael Walzer's recent defense of the just war theory clearly leaves something to be desired, as his article vacillates and offers no real solutions to the problems he presents. The problem is not just that the civilian/combatant divide is blurred. This has been the case since the anti-colonial movements and revolutions started following World War II. What is different is that, in this case, the "legitimate" combatants (i.e., those more or less paying attention to the laws of war) are actually in danger of losing, and losing means more than just getting kicked out of some foreign territory.

However, Kaplan is wrong about Clausewitz. I would argue that Old Carl is as relevant as ever. In particular, when considering the current conflicts in the Middle East, it might be valuable to consider:

  1. "War is ... an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Sounds like a "well, duh!" moment, except that everyone seems to forget this. It's not about hatred, or honor, or glory or vendetta. Well, sometimes it is, but such fighters tend to get killed. As Michael Corleone said, "Never get angry. It clouds your reason."
  2. "If the enemy is to be coerced you must put him in a situation that is even more unpleasant than the sacrifice you call on him to make."
  3. "To introduce the principle of moderation into the theory of war itself would alway lead to logical absurdity." This flies in the face of just war theories, but it is at the heart of the famed "Powell Doctrine" of the first Gulf War. As Clausewitz notes, "If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand. That side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent towards extremes, and the only limiting factors are the counterpoises inherent in war." In other words, as William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is hell." There's just no getting around it.
  4. And, of course, "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means." War is politics. "The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it..." This means that, despite Sherman's warning, war likely will remain with us.

These modern wars against irregular armed forces do not change these fundamental points, but they do underscore the problem that Clausewitz recognized from the start: Point 3 and Point 4 are in inherent conflict. Moderation in war is a logical absurdity, but politics requires moderation since war is just a means of achieving a political objective. Such means must be moderated to be effective.

What does this mean for Lebanon? Hell if I know. Israel's objectives are clear at this point. They must stop Hezbollah's rocket attacks against Israel, and they must do so with some level of permanence. Iran's objectives are also clear: they want to become the leaders of the Shi'ite world, and become the preeminent regional power. Hezbollah is a tool in that regard. But, unless we assume that Hezbollah is entirely a puppet of Iran, what is their objective? And what will this mean for the Sunni Arab states?

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