New War, Old Strategy

There is an old saying, “Generals fight the most recent war.” This is not correct. Generals fight the most recent war that they have won. When they win a war, they get promoted. Those who imitate them also get promoted. So, the next war is a replay of the most recent victorious war.

We fought in Vietnam as we had fought in Korea. We lost. Gen. Giap used guerilla tactics. He never won a major tactical battle with U.S. forces, but he won the war. The Tet Offensive is the consummate example: he lost the military battle and won the psychological battle. War is about psychology — knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as your enemy’s, and designing your strategy accordingly.

We won the Gulf War because we lost in Vietnam. We adopted tactics suited for a desert war, which replaced the jungle warfare tactics that had lost us the war in Vietnam. The Gulf War was ideal for our strategy and weapons in 1991. But it took six months of build-up to win it.

The Gulf war led to this one. Bin Laden began his jihad against the United States because Saudi Arabia had allowed non-Islamic troops on its soil in 1991. For bin Laden, this was an act of sacrilege, of profanity. (To profane something is to transgress a sacred boundary.) As a strict Muslim and a Saudi, this outraged bin Laden, who was back from Afghanistan, where he had fought victoriously in a decade-long war against another non-Islamic devil. When the Saudi government refused to listen to him, he began to plan a long-term offensive, one which would pressure the Islamic world into a jihad against the United States.

At this point, he has flushed half of his quarry into the open: the United States. He has lured us into the war he has deliberately provoked, or someone using his strategy has provoked. He has not yet provoked Islamic nations into a confrontation. He is letting us do this.

The key factor in our strategy against homeland terrorism in the United States had better be this: to persuade Islamic national leaders to go after bin Laden’s forces, not out of fear of our military attack on them, but out of concern for their own nations’ stability.

What we need now is psy-war. This must begin with a steady release of documents showing than bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. We must present the case that we will use in a court of law. We must win in the court of Islamic public opinion. To the extent that Islamic political leaders are truly opposed to terrorism against civilians in the name of Islam, to that extent they will do something to isolate bin Laden in Afghanistan and root out his followers inside their own borders.

We have a $5 million reward on him for the bombing of the American Embassies in 1998. We have yet to supply proof for that. We must not rest our case with the Trade Center bombing. We must also show that he was responsible for the earlier bombings.

So far, the U.S. government has released no evidence pointing to bin Laden in the New York attack. Instead, we have demanded that the Taliban to turn him over to us. This is not negotiable, the President has said. It is also not negotiable with Taliban, I suspect.

What We Are Asking Islamic Leaders to Do

What if the State of Israel were to receive a threat from Arafat demanding that the Israeli government turn over a suspected Jewish terrorist to him. Arafat merely makes the accusation. He supplies no proof besides a few inflammatory speeches that the suspect made five years ago. Would the Israelis turn him over? To ask the question is to answer it.

What if Arafat then sent in forces to enforce his demand? What if he threatened every nation that sided with the Israelis in not routing out suspected Jewish extremists inside their borders? What would the reaction Jews around the world be?

Of course, Arafat is not going to do this. The PLO is not a superpower. But you get the idea. The way for Arafat to promote his case would be to supply evidence that would prove his case, thereby isolating the Israelis. Otherwise, the Israelis’ determination to resist Arafat and fight him on the ground would gain worldwide support.

Do you agree so far?

We are now telling leaders of several Islamic nations — whom we have for years identified as “rogue states” — that they must cooperate with us, or else. When asked by the American press to name these nations, our officials have refused to do so. Why so coy, at this late date? Coyness is not what is called for. Psychological warfare is.

I think Islamic national leaders really are embarrassed by what was done in New York. They know the act was wrong. They know it could happen to their nations. If the United States would just supply the evidence against bin Laden, and then call on them to defend what they perceive as Islamic justice, I think they would cooperate — grudgingly, probably, but who cares, just so long as they isolate bin Laden and round up his active henchmen who have broken Islamic law?

Let’s encourage Islamic nations to keep bin Laden’s forces on the run and focused on revenge against their own homelands rather than ours. If the United States’ government’s number-one objective is the protection of American civilians, which it had better be, wouldn’t this be the best strategy?

Instead, we tell Islamic leaders of sovereign states to do what we say, or else. This boxes them in with their own people, who really, truly resent Christianity and the West. This puts these leaders in danger from the very forces of terrorism that we are trying to crush. It makes these leaders appear as lackeys of the West, and worse, of the United States.

We are not yet fighting the war we are in with a strategy suited to the new conditions. We are fighting it with yesterday’s strategy — worse: with the strategy of December 8, 1941. American pundits kept pushing President Bush to sound like FDR. Well, he sounded more like him than I would have expected. Rhetorically, he delivered a good speech for Americans to hear, assuming they think that this war will be fought the way that we fought Japan. But we are also being told that this will not be that kind of war.

I am not a general, but I am a student of the history of religion. One of my fields when I took my master’s degree in history was medieval history. I know something about the Crusades and the theology of Islam. I have read the Koran, though not recently enough. I have been in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, and I have read a translation of Mohammed’s ultimatum for a city in North Africa to surrender. “You know who I am,” said the message. They did. They surrendered. All of North Africa converted to Islam at the edge of the sword. Then the Arabs invaded Spain. It took Spain over seven centuries to drive them out in 1492.

My wife is of Armenian descent on her father’s side. She was told early and often about the slaughter of a million Armenian civilians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16, to which the West turned a blind eye, and still does. We are in the latest phase of an old war.

When dealing with Islamic leaders, we had better stick with Islamic law. Even if they don’t believe it, their people do. The war against bin Laden should have begun with the release of documents showing that he is guilty as charged. This would be effective psy-war for the war we are in.

We are doing what bin Laden has planned for us to do. We are threatening to invade an Islamic nation and threatening to invade more. We are actively driving a small segment of millions of resentful Islamic citizens into the arms of the terrorists. We are throwing away the best weapon we have, at least for the moment: a sense of embarrassment among Islamic political leaders regarding what was done in New York in the name of Islam.

And then some dunderhead in the Department of Defense selected “Infinite Justice” as the name of this operation. You know: infinite as in God. When asked by a member of the press to explain this bonehead decision, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did sound embarrassed, saying that someone had mentioned this as a possible name. Give me a break! The Defense Department had handed the press release to the journalists. Now we must back down — not the way to begin a war.

This war must be fought in terms of religion, for it is a religious war. Our strategists had better understand what Islam is, how to use the categories of some aspects of Islam — the more humane categories — to isolate these terrorists, and then call upon Islamic leaders to act consistently with the better side of Islam.


This isn’t Desert Storm. We are fighting it as if it were, but without six months of build-up, without an Islamic nation to host our forces, and without about 60% of the forces that we had in 1991. We are fighting this war with FDR’s rhetoric, Norman Schwartzkopf’s strategy, and Bill Clinton’s military.

God protect America. Let us be content with this. We should not expect him to bless hubris.

September 24, 2001

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© 2001