Small Wars Journal

Why Can’t America Win its Wars?

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 1:00pm

Why Can’t America Win its Wars?

Stephen B. Young

As part of his January 2, 2019 cabinet meeting, President Donald Trump may have petulantly disparaged his resigning Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, but he did ask a Lord Voldemort question – one which should not be spoken aloud. He raised for the world to consider why can America no longer win its wars?

He asked about General Mattis “Well, what’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too god. Not too good. I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan.” Trump put the problem curtly: “You can talk about our generals. I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn’t do such a great job in Afghanistan. They’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years”, adding: “I want results.”

The record of American disappointments is indeed impressive for money spent and results obtained: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, the War on Terror.

Further, an inability to obtain a favorable balance of power can be seen in the South China Sea, Yemen, Libya, the Ukraine, North Korea, and the Middle East. Today, near insurgent conditions in much of Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras negatively impact American domestic tranquility through drug sales and illegal migration.

As Carlos Ghosn in better days advised: "If you don't find the solution, it's because you didn't see the real problem." If we have been unable to win our wars, it has been because we have not seen the real problem – which is that the forms of power we bring to conflicts are not well suited to producing victory. We need to address this problem with a more sophisticated understanding of power itself.

A suitably sophisticated understanding of the nature of power, a conceptual framework leading us to ask the right national security questions about what to do, when, and how, was provided by Clauswitz. He proposed that power is a continuum from politics to war fighting.  A party in conflict can deploy forms of power all along the continuum, separately or in combination.

Clauswitz’s continuum is better graphed as a Gaussian distribution – a bell-shaped curve with the less frequently used forms of power at the extremes (unilateral forms of power) and the most efficacious forms centered around the median (multilateral combinations of powers).

At one extreme is very “hard” power and on the other very “soft” power.

In the middle are found combinations of various forms of power – psychological/emotional, political, economic, insurgent -These combinations include powers brought to bear independently by multiple players.  The middle of the continuum is multi-lateral and deployment of powers most often results from alliances.

Our default position in conflict resolution seems always restricted to the extremes of Clauswitz’s continuum: “hard” power or “soft” power. Thus, we rarely avail ourselves of the most effective forms of power – “associative” power closely integrating our powers with those of others on our side in the fight.

Going forward the priority national security problem we need to solve is “who can help us win?” We can then decide where to apply “associative” power by asking the question “who can make a difference?”  We then align with those who can help us and remove from the conflict or greatly marginalize those who are opposed to the outcomes we seek. 

As noted, our national security policies have relied primarily upon only two forms of power – “hard” and “soft. Both “hard” and “soft” power are applied unilaterally so they put the onus of success mostly on ourselves.  Our leaders for decades now have wrongly defined the needed effort as a unilateral one, undertaken in the main by Americans and those they hire and supervise.  If we see the fight as a unilateral one, we will gravitate in our choices of strategies and tactics to either “hard” or “soft” powers.

“Hard’ power is our use of kinetic violence against enemies. Our national security strategy has mostly and wrongly defined the path to victory as a “hard power” technical one of removing violent actors from a tactical area of responsibility.

General William Westmoreland, once commandant of West Point Military Academy, once told me that the modern strategic doctrine of the American army derived entirely from General U.S. Grant’s theory of war. Grant once said “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Today that doctrine is sloganized as “find, fix, fight, and finish.”

That was our strategy in Vietnam (search and destroy; war of attrition), Iraq, and Afghanistan.  It is even deeply embedded in our COIN approach to counterinsurgency.

But the cause of the challenges we faced in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere is bad governance, not armed insurgents. Bad governance generates the insurgents who, as Mao correctly said are “the fish which swim in the sea of the people”. Leave the people badly governed and an insurgency can go on forever. As Admiral Stavridis once pleaded “You can't kill your way to success in a counter insurgency effort. You have to protect the people, get the civil military balance right, train the locals, and practice effective strategic communications.”

“Soft” power, on the other hand, is our attempt to rally others to defend and fight for our values – democracy with free and fair elections, constitutional checks and balances, human rights, free markets, feminism, etc..

The melting point of “soft” power, when it turns useless or even into resentment of our intentions, happens when it blinds us to the political realities of the conflict situation. “Soft” power can isolate us from important others. “Soft” power does, however, have a “feel good” quality because it provides a pleasing ratification of our own hubris where we never need to doubt our right to impose our will, proving once again that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. (see: Stephen Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy)

If we want others to work with us, to sacrifice on our behalf their lives, liberty, and pursuit of their visions of happiness, it is actually their “soft” power, not ours, which will mobilize their energies and draw forth their commitment to the battle.  To add their will and strength to the correlation of forces in the conflict, we need to bind their soft power to ours through partnership and collaboration.

To use “associative” power vis-à-vis China, we should go over the heads of the Communist Party and its government and speak directly to the Chinese people themselves. Most of all we need to challenge the cultural presumptions of the Party to rule what the Chinese call “All-Under-Heaven” (TianXia) and remind the Chinese people that the imperial system being reinvigorated by Xi Jinping to rule “All-Under-Heaven” is not Confucian in origin and does not reflect the highest morality of the Chinese people.

Second, we can seek to secure alignment with us of other peoples who do not want their destinies dictated by an “emperor” in Beijing.

To use “associative” power vis-a-vis the Kremlin, we need first to understand the deep cultural drivers of Russian ethnic pride.  Russian autocracy and its desire to dominate others arises out of a presumption that Russia was chosen by God to be the “Third” Rome after the loss of the first Rome to Catholicism and the second Rome, Constantinople, to the Muslims.  As in China such a cultural conceit is not particularly vulnerable to attack by our “hard” or “soft” powers. A dialogue with the Russians through their intellectuals needs to be opened. Russians need to be welcomed into the moral community of the West. At the same time, we should publicly question the contemporary relevance of the Third Rome ideal proposing necessary Russian superiority.

To use “associative” power in the War on Terror and finally win it, we again need to start by understanding that the power ultimately sustaining Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is a fanatical cultural belief, a fire in the mind, which cannot be exterminated by force of arms alone. Nor will it ever yield on its own to our “soft” power ideals.

The form of power driving Islamicist violence is psychological in its roots and needs to be resolutely opposed by those within the Muslim religion who have the credibility to marginalize such thinking and feeling.  To defeat violent extremists in the Muslim Ummah, we must ally with those Muslims who read the Qur’an differently from the Salafis and the Iranian Ayatollahs. Our “associative” power in the fight against Islamic extremism should use Qur’anic concepts such as ijtihad - human freedom of thought, shirk – the hubris of acting in place of God, or the covenants which the Prophet Muhammad made with Christian communities.


About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.