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.