Obama Does Not Understand Warfare
Obama's talk at National Defense University on 23 May 2013 reflected a failure to understand warfare. He stated, "This war, like all wars, must end," and then discussed the legal and human rights issues regarding drone strikes and detention at Guantanamo. Conventional war, between the armed forces of states, does have a clear start and a clear end -- but not warfare. In peace, when no one is capable and willing to use violence to achieve political ends, civil rights and legal procedures should receive great emphasis -- but in warfare doing so is very costly in time, blood, and treasure. Drone strikes and Guantanamo are just operational details. In war the goal is victory and a peace treaty. In warfare the goal is stability, but because of its protracted nature there is never a legal ending. Warfare is complex and protracted.
Since the 1649 Treaty of Westphalia leaders in the West have thought of war and peace as dichotomous conditions. The current struggle with the Third Jihad, being neither war nor peace, should have caused President Obama, and those who advise him, to recognize the fallacy in this view. To be successful in the struggle with Islamists, the United States must abandon the old duality and become skillful in the management of the reality of the war-warfare-peace trilogy. But Obama's speech revealed that this is not yet understood. Thus the USA is likely to repeat the errors made in Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Throughout history there have been conflicts distinct from those defined either as war or peace. The oldest form of conflict is some group using any means available to obtain authority. Laws are merely a way to control such conflict.
War is an accurate term for symmetrical conflict between the armed forces of states. However, confusion, inefficiencies, and ineffectiveness arise when the term "war" is expanded to include other forms of conflict. What should the current conflict be called? The trilogy of war-warfare-peace recognizes three distinctive conditions on a continuum of the use of force. Each of these conditions requires unique means, methods, strategies, tactics, and techniques. Our political elite should determine how best to handle warfare, which can be defined for our purposes as protracted asymmetrical conflict between non-state actors and those in authority. They should stop using means, methods, strategies, tactics, and techniques appropriate for either war or peace during warfare.
Peace depends upon a social contract between a state and its citizens. Among other things, that contract prescribes the ways of enforcing rules, regulations and laws. As long as the social contract is unchallenged there is peace. Today in many countries the Islamists are using violence to challenge those in authority and in Europe and the United States their fifth column is using covert means and occasionally terror.
No doubt one of the reasons President Obama does not want to recognize warfare as a condition distinctive from both peace and war is that it impacts many of the most fundamental aspects of politics: liberty, identity, custom, tradition, law, and rights. Focusing on finding, capturing, killing and trying "terrorists" is a way to avoid the challenge because terror is only a tactic. What is important is motivation of individuals -- but the president does not want to recognize what motivates Islamists.
President Obama said: "We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend." While this can be done in peace with law enforcement methods, in warfare it requires means inappropriate for peace. The conclusion: he does not understand warfare.
The fundamental questions President Obama failed to address are the nature of warfare and how the Third Jihad is to be neutralized. The core of al-Qaeda has been reduced, U.S. conventional war forces are being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and the expensive "soft power" efforts are being cut back, but the president offered no ideas on how to be successful in warfare against the Third Jihad. Those who want to weaken the Great Satan are just as determined as they were in 1979 when the Shah was overthrown by Islamists lead by Ayatollah Khomeini, and in 1998 when a fatwa was issued by Islamists declaring war against America and its allies.
Islamists are frustrated because the West is rich, technologically superior, and powerful and because it is -- in their eyes -- materialistic and corrupt. They want to weaken and destroy America and Europe. The Islamists believe they can combine the fervor of true believers with Muslim piety to regain stolen wealth. They see Americans as "infidels" that have caused ills in Muslim countries.
However, it must be recognized that all Muslims are not Islamists who support the Third Jihad -- even though millions do. Many Muslims have little interest in establishing a Great Caliphate, and they are neither hateful, infantile, nor irrational. The West can only win this ideological struggle if Muslims who want to live in peace with Western Culture neutralize the Islamists. However, this will require a transformation of Islam, similar to -- but much more difficult to realize -- that which took place in Christianity after 1500. It will require Muslims to reject those parts of the Qur'an that require the submission or killing of all nonbelievers, and many of the behaviors of Muhammad.
The Islamists cannot be neutralized if the policies of the West start with the naive notion that money and rhetoric can win minds, hearts, and stomachs and thus turn people against the Islamists. All ideological struggles are a test of wills -- and this one is also. Economic, military, or legal means rarely change the inner compass of individuals, yet it is the inner compass that establishes and maintains wills and motivation. The inner compass determines what a person considers good or bad, right or wrong, and virtuous or evil.
The leaders of the Third Jihad recognized the frustration engendered when people give up their traditional cultures for dreams of Western Culture. The gap between what they observe in Europe and America and what they observe in their own countries obliges them to blame the West for all of their ills -- even as they long for the material benefits of the West. Moreover, there is always a gap between expectations and reality. The leaders of the Third Jihad motivate Islamists through manipulation of such feelings.
President Obama has failed to recognize these realities.
Dr. Sam C. Holliday is Director, Armiger Cromwell Center, Atlanta, GA