The fragility of domination

ALBERT WOHLSTETTER’S PRECEPTS

1.  Liberal internationalism is an illusion

2.  The system that replaces liberal internationalism must address the ever-present (and growing) danger posed by catastrophic surprise.

3.  The key to averting or at least minimizing surprise is to act preventively.

4.  The ultimate in preventive action is domination

5.  Information technology brings outright supremacy within reach.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

The late Albert Wohlstetter was an influential “defense intellectual,” a scholar little known to the public but highly influential in shaping U.S. military policy.  His philosophy was summarized in these five precepts by Andrew J. Bacevich in an article in the March issue of Harper’s magazine, which was about the efforts of Paul Wolfowitz, one of Wohlstetter’s chief disciples, to turn these precepts into U.S. government policy.

Wolfowitz, serving as an adviser to the Pentagon in 1992, drafted the controversial Defense Planning Guidance document.  According to Basevich, it said the “first objective” of U.S. policy is to maintain unquestioned military supremacy and “prevent the emergence of a new rival, by, if necessary, employing force unilaterally with an eye to “deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”   Unfortunately for Wolfowitz, the document was leaked before the White House had a chance to review it, President George H.W.  Bush disavowed it, and Wolfowitz left the government.

He served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University until he returned to government in 2001 as deputy to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  He advocated preventive war against Iraq.  “We cannot wait until the threat is imminent,” he wrote.   This policy failed.  But why did it fail?  The answer is that domination does not make you stronger.  Rather the effort to maintain domination saps your strength.

I’ve written posts about the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb on fragility and antifragility.  The high-technology U.S. military is fragile, according to Taleb’s definition.  U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan depended on a long supply chain and complex technologies which could fail at any point.  The insurgency, by Taleb’s definition, was antifragile.  The insurgents fought on their home ground, used simple technologies (explosives set off by garage door openers and TV remotes) and were embedded in the population of the country, not in walled outposts.  Every U.S. victory in battle or drone attack raised up more insurgents for every one that was killed.

The Roman Empire was strong as long as Roman citizens throughout the empire thought it was worth defending.  When the empire came to rest on mere domination, the very extent of the empire made it harder to defend.  Every attack in the West made it necessary to weaken defenses in the East, and vice versa.  Eventually it became necessary to create co-emperors, for West and East, and this made it possible for the eastern half to survive after the western half fell.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers wrote about how strong nations have been weakened by “imperial overstretch.”  Great Britain in World War Two was weakened, not strengthened, by the need to keep troops in India.  The British Empire’s strength came from Canada, Australia and other territories that did not rest on domination.

By occupying Afghanistan, the United States has made its forces vulnerable to attacks from the tribal areas of Pakistan, which would otherwise be of no concern.  To safeguard the new government in Libya, U.S. policy-makers now seek to prevent unfriendly forces from controlling Mali.  Rather than creating security, our government has created a wider circle of threats.   And in so doing, it has sapped American strength and left us less able to cope with urgent problems at home.

§§§

Andrew J. Bacevich, who describes himself as a Catholic conservative, is himself a defense intellectual worth heeding.  A West Point graduate and retired career Army officer who served in Vietnam, he now teaches international relations at Boston University.  Click on A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz to read his full article in Harper’s.

The two graphics is this post contain interesting information.  The top one is from Canada’s National Post in October, 2011, and updated last January, showing U.S. bases and military interventions around the world.   The National Post is outstanding in using graphics to present information.

The lower one shows the world divided up into six U.S. military commands.  Suppose, Bacevich wrote elsewhere, that the Chinese government divided the world into six commands, each with a four-star Chinese general commanding Chinese troops on Chinese bases.  Would not the rest of the world, including us Americans, find this threatening?

Bacevich has been warning against unwise U.S. military interventions since the Clinton administration.  Click on The new American militarism for my review of Andrew Bacevich’s 2005 book, The New American Militarism: How America Is Seduced By War.

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