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A warning From Clausewitz

By William S. Lind
web posted March 10, 2003

An American war on Iraq now seems certain. Even if Saddam Hussein agrees to step down and go into exile, it is not clear that Washington would forgo the occupation of Iraq and the installation of an American military government. Wilsonianism is in full flower, in what is likely to prove a false spring.

As we watch events unfold, it may be useful to keep two points in mind. First, the center of gravity of this war -- the place or places where a decision is likely to occur -- are not in Iraq. As is also true of the war in Afghanistan, the centers of gravity of a war with Iraq are in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Of these three, Pakistan is the most important.

Strategically, Iraq is not a key to very much. One might argue that as Iraq goes, so goes Syria, but that is not saying a lot. Iraq is not a key to Iran; on the contrary, their rivalry goes back centuries. All Iraq means to Turkey is an increased threat of an independent Kurdish state and maybe a chance to grab Iraq's northern oil fields. The notion that an American-conquered Iraq can blossom into a Swiss-style democracy that will remake the Middle East comes from Cloud Coockoo Land. If you want to see what democracy in that region would really mean for American interests, look at the Turkish parliament's vote this weekend against allowing U.S. forces to invade Iraq from Turkey.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in contrast, are keys to many other things. Pakistan has nukes, Saudi Arabia controls world oil prices and Egypt offers Israel its only hope of some kind of (temporary) deal with the Arabs. If the pro-western regime in any of those nations falls, we will have suffered a strategic disaster. If they all go, our position in the region will collapse. The central strategic question, therefore, is what effect an American attack on Iraq will have on the stability and tenure of the Pakistani, Saudi and Egyptian regimes.

That leads to point number two: if and when American forces capture Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein, the real war will not end but begin. It will be fought in Iraq in part, as an array of non-state elements begin to fight America and each other. It will be fought in part in the rest of the Islamic world where the targets will not only be Americans but any local regime that is friendly to America. And, of course, it will be fought here in America, as the sons of Mohammed remind Americans that war is a two-way street.

This kind of war, Fourth Generation war, is something American and other state armed forces do not know how to fight. It is not going to go well, and among the casualties are likely to be the pro-American governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In short, an American victory over the state of Iraq (which is itself no sure thing) is more likely to lead to a strategic failure for America than to a strategic success.

In a somewhat more famous On War, Clausewitz wrote:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and Commander have to make is to establish...the kind of war on which they are embarking: neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

With the invasion of Iraq, Washington is trying to turn a Fourth Generation war, a war with non-state entities, into a Second Generation war, a war against another state that can be conquered by the simple application of firepower to targets. If Clausewitz were still with us, I suspect he would warn that we are marching toward Jena*

* Jena was the battle where Napoleon decisively defeated Prussia in 1806.

William S. Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.

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