Retrospective

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The 300th column in this series offers a useful point from which to look back. Events since On War #1 have, I think, generally validated the Four Generations framework. Iraq was not a "cakewalk," nor did our initial invasion of Afghanistan "eviscerate" the Taliban. Mullah Omar proved the better prophet; before the first American bomb fell, he said, "We will lose the government and lose Kabul, but it doesn’t matter."

What lessons might we draw from the previous 299 On War columns and their interplay with the larger world? Three seem to me to be of overriding importance.

  1. So long as America pursues an offensive grand strategy, Fourth Generation war will ensure her defeat. The reason is Martin van Creveld’s concept of the power of weakness and its intimate relationship with legitimacy. In a Fourth Generation world, legitimacy is the coin of the realm. At root, Fourth Generation war is a contest for legitimacy between the state and a wide variety of non-state primary loyalties. American power lacks legitimacy because, on the physical level, it is so overwhelming. That is the power of weakness: anyone who stands up to the American military becomes a hero. In turn, any state the American military supports loses its legitimacy. The more places America intervenes militarily, the more states lose their legitimacy, to the advantage of Fourth Generation, non-state entities. In effect, we have a reverse Midas touch. Only a defensive grand strategy, where we mind our own business and leave other states to mind theirs, can break us out of this downward spiral.

  2. Second Generation militaries cannot win Fourth Generation wars. Second Generation armed forces, such as those of the United States, fight by putting firepower on targets. This wins at the physical level, but as it does so it brings defeat at the moral level, which is decisive in 4GW. The best current example is Pakistan, where the combination of Predator strikes and arm-twisting of the Pakistani government has undermined the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. That state now stands on the verge of disintegration, which would give al Qaeda and other Islamic 4GW forces the greatest victory they could imagine. The image on Osama’s cave wall should be a Predator, with the title, "Our best weapon."

  3. There is no chance America will adopt a defensive grand strategy or reform its military to move from the Second to the Third Generation — a necessary though not sufficient step in confronting 4GW — so long as the current Washington Establishment remains in power. That Establishment is drunk on hubris, cut off from the world beyond court politics and thoroughly corrupted by Pentagon "business as usual," which knows how to buy whatever political support it needs. Like all establishments, it sees any real change as a threat, to be avoided. So long as it reigns, nothing will change.

What are the implications of these three observations? Militarily, they portend continued failure and defeat. We will fail to get out of Iraq before the next phase of that war begins, or, worse, an Israeli attack on Iran costs us the army we have in Iraq. We will be defeated in Afghanistan, because we will refuse to scale our strategic objectives to what is possible and we will continue to alienate the population with our firepower-intensive way of war. We will push Pakistan over the brink into disintegration, which will be a strategic catastrophe of the first order. We will ignore the disintegration of the state in Mexico, while importing Mexico’s disorder through our ineffective border controls. We will not even be able to stop Somali pirates. What does it say about us when the whole nation rejoices because the U.S. Navy, the most powerful navy on earth, defeated four Somali teenagers?

It does not end with this. These foreign policy failures and military defeats — or even more embarrassing "victories" — become just two of a larger series of crises, including the economic crisis (depression followed by runaway inflation), foreign exchange crisis (collapse of the dollar), political crisis (no one in the Establishment knows what to do, but the Establishment offers the voters no alternative to itself), energy crisis, etc. Together, these discrete crises snowball into a systemic crisis, which is what happens when the outside world demands greater change than the political system permits. At that point, the political system collapses and is replaced by something else. In the old days, it meant a change of dynasty. What might it mean today? My guess is a radical devolution, at the conclusion of which life is once again local.

That would be, on the whole, a happy outcome. But I fear this will be a trip where the journey is not half the fun.

William Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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