(State of Nature, Winter 2010 Issue)
The inaugural decade of the new century will be remembered for two phenomena above all: the savagery of human nature, and the United States, the world’s sole hegemon, going rogue, and taking other nations with it. As we were about to leave the twentieth century, and many in the West were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, the prospect of a clash of ideologies was becoming a reality. Instead of the ‘menace’ of communism, the neoconservatives and the religious Right in the United States had found another enemy in radical Islam. It was one of the supreme ironies that the confrontation would be between President George W Bush and the ideology that his father George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan had promoted in their fight against Soviet communism when they were in the White House during the last phase of the Cold War.
Having seen off the ‘Soviet threat’, the hegemon that emerged victorious had a fatal belief in its own destructive power. In refusing to learn lessons from the past, it invited worse. The new confrontation was not going to be between two equals, aware of the certainty of mutual destruction in the event of an all-out war. The primary characteristic of the new confrontation would be its lack of symmetry, making it more brutal. For when combatants are not equals and mutual destruction is not certain, the dominant side becomes vulnerable in other ways.
Overwhelming power leads to impudence and disregard for law and reason. Institutions that are there to protect the innocent and the weak begin to lose their meaning. In a world without restraint, the underdog is often depicted as evil and brutality becomes the norm. With too much power comes the belief that it is easy to crush the ‘enemy’. But the underdog has strength in numbers, paving the way to atrocities on all sides. All of this has been witnessed in the savage first decade of the new century.
To view al Qaeda and the many nationalist movements in the Islamic world as one ‘enemy’ during the ‘war on terror’ has been an historic miscalculation. The project under the presidency of George W Bush to crush nationalism in the Middle East has exacted a high price from the West. But countries in the region have paid a price even greater. Al Qaeda’s terrorist violence has been answered by the terror of American military power. The lives of millions of people have been destroyed or blighted. In 2010, a year after Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency, the initial euphoria has evaporated and gloom has set in.
Unlike the Cold War that ended in the 1980s, the United States has no superpower rival in the new century, and the balance of threat of mutual annihilation is absent. Instead, one side in the new conflict has overwhelming destructive power and has become insolent. The underdog is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice – in acts of suicide attacks. Fear has lost its deterrent quality. Death is no longer an unwelcome prospect for a growing number of people living without hope. And for an alarming number, the rationality in martyrdom has replaced the rationality in survival. Humans are at their most dangerous when they no longer fear death.
In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation wrote a commentary titled ‘The Long War Against Terrorism’. A retired lieutenant-colonel in the US Army, and a leading neoconservative ideologue, Carafano began with these words: “Two years down the war on terror. How many more to go? We don’t know.” Boastfully, he argued that America’s ‘long war’ against terror was similar in scope and duration to the Cold War. The military establishment, delighted with the enlargement of the Pentagon budget following the return of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary in the Bush administration, jumped at the term. It gained currency in the war lexicon within a few months. In 2006, Rumsfeld invented a phrase of his own, describing it as ‘a generational conflict akin to the Cold War’, likely to go on for decades.
These assertions were based on flawed thinking, and comparisons with the Cold War were not relevant. America’s victory over the Soviet Union was achieved not by bombing the Soviet state out of existence, but by draining the Soviet economy and resolve through an arms race and regional proxy wars. America’s ‘enemy’ in the new century is a ghost army of guerrillas, with little else to lose except their lives. And they are only too willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The hegemon, in possession of the most sophisticated war technology, decided to confront this loose army of guerrillas equipped with little more than light weapons, explosives and simple timing devices, able to move at will across frontiers.
In The Art of War, believed to have been written in the sixth century BC and still regarded as one of the most influential works about war strategy and tactics, the Chinese general and military theorist, Sun Tzu, said:
Warfare is the way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable.
If active, appear not active.
If near, appear far.
If far, appear near.
If they have advantage, entice them.
If they are confused, take them.
If they are substantial, prepare for them.
If they are strong, avoid them.
‘Shock and Awe’, the post-Cold War doctrine written at the United States National Defense University in 1996, was designed to paralyze the enemy and achieve rapid dominance by overwhelming force in battle. The truth is rather different. Provided the enemy removes himself and recovers from the effects of high-altitude bombing and missile attacks, in time he will improvise tactics to fight an effective guerrilla war that a conventional army will find difficult to sustain. A great military power wants rapid victory. The underdog prefers a long war. This, and not merely the use of overwhelming power and lightning speed, is the essence of Sun’s doctrine of warfare. More at State of Nature