Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

18 thoughts on “Selection and maintenance of the aim”

  1. Exactly. The US’s problems are almost entirely self-imposed. And almost impossible to resolve. It’s like dealing with a neurotic patient, incapable of thinking beyond a tight little knot of pet ideas.


  2. But of course they have a strategy. Or, rather, strategies. The New American Century, the Wolfowitz doctrine, the ‘controlled chaos’ (aka ‘colored revolutions’), all that stuff. I’m sure there’s an unremarkable office somewhere with some nondescript sign on the door, where the team of strategists devise their evil plans day and night. And everything we see fits exactly into its place… Alas, we in our ignorance will never be able to appreciate it…


  3. “This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice”.

    Well, presumably the leaders (political leaders) are never given the military college education. They can hardly put those principles into practices if they have never heard of them.


    1. “Well, presumably the leaders (political leaders) are never given the military college education. They can hardly put those principles into practices if they have never heard of them.”

      Bingo. The ruling elite of the West should be described as the Plutocracy – with everything it entails and appropariate historical analogies (*coughcoughmerchantrepublicscough*. )


    2. It’s hardly rocket science. You don’t have to go to Staff College to understand basic principles of rational policy making (or as we used to say in the British Army, ‘You don’t need the brains of an archbishop to understand this’). Besides, the military officers advising US presidents seem equally as incapable of following this rule as their political masters.


      1. “Besides, the military officers advising US presidents seem equally as incapable of following this rule as their political masters.”

        Maybe because they are not really “military elite” and just another sub-set of plutocrats that happen to wear a uniform (for a time being)? That every single one of them, top brass, is connected with this or that interest group, lobbyists, in short – with the capitalist enterprise. It doesn’t matter that it would have been “cheaper” to invest from the very beginning say, 15$ billions for a meaningful reconstruction of Afghanistan. No. What matters is that a protracted war and absolutely insane “initiatives” satisfy certain interest groups and allows them to make money. That’s it! It’s capitalism in action. How dare you argue against it? Are you bloody commie, per chance?!

        If you build (for real) a powestation or a school or a hospital in Afghanistan you are committing a crime by denying the people who trust you the potential income. And what brings potential income? Bullets. Bombs. Shit that goes “boom” and needs replacing. These things – not something lasting.

        Paradoxically enough, but the Westie elites still blindly worship Keynesianism (inshallah!) while there is only one (1) sphere remaining where it still more or less works – the Military Industrial Complex. Then why are you surprised that this particular Cash Cow and the main engine of the Progress does as it please? Who are you to argue against sacrifices to this Moloch if you, inevitably, benefit from its Grace?


  4. I think the comments about how inconsistent and confused Western leaders have been in their policies completely miss the point. The goals discussed in the article were merely a cosmetic cover for the true goal: to reduce as much of the Near and Middle East (and other parts of the world) to chaos and anarchy. Once that is understood, it is clear that goal has been achieved in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and large parts of Syria. Once, Israel was tightly surrounded by powerful, secular, tolerant modern Muslim states. Today Iraq and Lebanon have been reduced to political porridge, while Syria would have been if the Russians had not intervened in the nick of time.


  5. There is a fairly constant theoretical aim – it is to maintain national “primacy”. At least according to, lets say, the Kissinger way of thinking. Carefully applied destabilization, targeted according to balance-of-power logic, is one of the tools to achieve this end – in that if you can’t win influence in a place, you may as well deny it to the other players. Considerations of collective security or mutual interest would be in second place at best. That is the weakness in th “primacy” reasoning, IMO.

    Promotion of democracy and humanitarian principles in general (and associated promotion of international institutions to such an extent that one’s own country would subordinate its interest to them) would be third place at best – as is easy to see in our attitude towards Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example. (Or China, for that matter).

    Now you could say that even within this way of thinking, a lot of recent US policy, such as the Iraq war, makes no sense. Also, if you consider China to be the most serious rival to the US, selecting Russia as the main adversary makes even less sense — the #1 player does not devote themselves to the #3 player, something is wrong with that picture.

    But I don’t think the process of national decision making is nearly so coherent that it follows any particular theory (let alone a theory that is sensible).


  6. Mea culpa. Mea ,axima culpa.

    The perp of the Swedish terrorist attack was not Tajic – he was Uzbek. The fact that he was chatting with ISIS regulras on their net–space is true none the less. Mostly – in Russian.

    O.;m waiting for Professor for having his now, trdemark, “blowback” post about how Sweden desrved this. I really do. Because you “have to live not by a lie” (c)


  7. I think the issue can be summarized like this: we, as westerners, are (or have become) incapable of adapting to a changing world.

    We are witnessing the transition from the age of western dominance (XVI century onward) into a new age of distrubuted power and yet we keep looking at the world the same way we have done for centuries.

    Most of the elites in the West are probably aware of what is happening, but some of them seem convinced that they can still stop or reverse the trend. Or otherwise they just keep going since they don’t know how to face the situation.
    Most of the population appears to be completely oblivious, even if people start to feel the effects of the worsening social, cultural and economic conditions (Trump’s election is proof enough, in my opinion).


  8. Here’s Prof Glazyev describing the strategy:

    something like: the weakening hegemon is struggling to stay in control by fomenting chaos in the periphery… Makes sense, no?


    1. I don’t buy this theory, which a number of you have suggested. It implies far too much planning, foresight, and intelligence on behalf of Western leaders. Arrogance, incompetence, and a bunch of cognitive biases which make them unwilling to face reality, are far more plausible explanations IMHO.


  9. The problem is that American and in consequence European ( NATO & EU) political elites have been seduced by military might and war as the primary means of achieving political aims. The art of diplomacy has been downgraded and forgotten. The “War on Terror” is an unwinnable one in military terms and is bound to fail due to the wrong means applied i.e. military might as the one and only tool. Instead of admitting failure due to wrong means, doubling of the effort is seen as a solution. This obviously does not solve the problem but leads to another failure and a spreading state of permanent war. In a way this is a repetition of a “body count” syndrome.



  10. I don’t think that any ‘democracy building’ goal is anything more than PR, a sugar coated pill to sell the western action to their voting public.

    Anyone half their salt who has picked up a book or two written by someone who is not an idiot wouldn’t think creating democracies is anything but a ‘nice to have’ policy, sic Afghanistan. There are many good history books about the country, but I would recommend Peter Hopkirk’s ‘The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia’ among others.

    Either way, you could say that the end of the Cold War marked an identifiable start of a major the historical shift. Everything that had been bubbling beneath the surface and held in place by the frozen peace and third party wars started to surface.

    The West having ‘won’ the Cold War took this as confirmation of their success and sat on their laurels whilst the world around them chose to or was forced to adapt.

    Among others, the 2008 financial crisis, BREXIT, the election of Trump and upcoming elections in Europe show laid bare how far the western political class simply ignored the domestic impact of their own policies. Even the Greeks knew that Gods weren’t invulnerable from their actions.

    Bombing countries without UN mandates, unilaterally dividing sovereign states (“It’s not a precedent!”) & subverting others through encouleur Revolutions shows that untrammeled power (by whomever) ultimately corrupts.

    In short, nothing has been learned from history. condemned to make the same mistakes over and over again usually as tragedy, not so much as farce.


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