The Art of (the Long) War

The technology of war may change, but the nature of war is immutable. Wisdom passed down from the ancient masters can therefore provide powerful insights into the chief ideological, political, and military challenge of the twenty-first century.

Composed in China around 500 B.C., The Art of War remains one of the most seminal expositions on conflict, armed and otherwise. Among Sun Tzu's many contributions is his simple yet profound diagnosis that knowledge plays the key role in separating victors from the vanquished: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Hence, while tactics proceed from strategies, strategies proceed from fundamentals: the who, what, and why of a given struggle.

Six years have passed since Islamic jihadists dramatically brought their war against Western civilization -- and indeed all civilized peoples -- to America's shores on the morning of September 11, 2001. How well do we know our enemy and ourselves in the wake of that terrible day? Moreover, how does our grasp of the fundamentals compare with that of the Islamists? Such assessments are vital, as compliance with Sun Tzu's maxim will determine the likely outcome of the Long War.

For the sake of concreteness, let us begin by defining the adversaries. On one side is a radical movement that operates under the banner of Islam, drawing inspiration from its scriptures, traditions, and jurisprudence. The ultimate objectives of this campaign are the reestablishment of the caliphate and the imposition of global Islamic rule, with preliminary mileposts to include the replacement of secular Arab and Asian governments with Taliban-style Islamic states, leading inexorably to the destruction of Israel. Despite a deep confessional divide, radical Sunnis and Shiites pursue common geopolitical ends.

Opposing them is the West, a society founded on Judeo-Christian values, the creativity of its Renaissance, and the critical thinking of its Enlightenment. The West is comprised of Europe and its many scions, and is led by the United States. In addition, a number of culturally non-Western countries have adopted the Western political and economic system, and are therefore allies in this conflict. Islamic radicals see the West as their overarching enemy for reasons both ideological and strategic: our freedoms are anathema to them and our power stands in the way of their global designs.

The first installment of this analysis will focus on knowing the enemy. Why the enemy fights dictates how he fights, so understanding his motivations provides context for his methods and clues to his tenacity. Cataloging the enemy's strengths and weaknesses likewise enables us to develop strategies that circumvent the former and exploit the latter.

Unfortunately, Sun Tzu would not be pleased with the performance of America and its allies in this regard.

The West has been hampered by a festering and self-inflicted wound: a reluctance to identify its foe as the totalitarian, Islamic-based ideology that it is. Instead, our elites call forth a politically correct haze to shroud the jihadist elephant in the room. Media outlets invoke euphemisms about rocket-launching "militants" and car-torching "youths." Middle East studies departments run interference for supremacist creeds. Politicians assure us that Islam has absolutely no relation to terror, despite the legions of terrorists proclaiming themselves to be soldiers of Allah. Even well-intentioned leaders add to this confusion by frequently labeling the struggle in terms of a tactic rather than the worldview it promotes.

What gives rise to this spectrum of denial? For those on the political extremes, it is a smoldering aversion to the Western system and a concomitant blindness to any evil that cannot be reflexively attributed to it. Other factions, particularly those to the left of center, exhibit a milder strain of this ailment in the guise of multiculturalism, a mindset that prohibits its subscribers -- and seeks to prohibit anyone else -- from criticizing non-Western faiths and traditions. Finally, all political persuasions are susceptible to wishful thinking: that people everywhere want basically the same things, that no enemy is irreconcilable, and that war is obsolete.

Ignorance about the true nature of the enemy is debilitating enough; worse is what fills the void. One popular fallacy holds that this conflict is shaped by political, rather than ideological, disputes. It is here that wishful thinking boldly asserts itself by promising simplistic, bloodless solutions to difficult problems. As the reasoning goes, if we do X -- where X could be the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq, Israel handing over the West Bank, India relinquishing its claims to Kashmir, or Europe banning doodles of Mohammed -- then our enemies would cease to be enemies and the world could return to some allegedly peaceful norm.

Such delusion is deadly. From the Sudetenland to Gaza, history warns that concessions to ideological foes not only instill a false sense of control over our adversaries, but invariably strengthen and embolden them. Hence, properly engaging the enemy requires us to know this: The conflict between Islamic expansionists and the West does not stem from political disagreements that can be assuaged by dialogue or compromise. Radical Islam seeks to wear down and ultimately destroy its opponent -- in Iraq, Israel, Europe, and everywhere else. We must focus on doing the same to radical Islam.

Another seductive fallacy maintains that the war can be successfully concluded by neutralizing a small handful of individuals and organizations. This represents more willful ignorance, and it is displayed each time a politician pledges to abandon critical fronts in favor of the search for one man, Osama bin Laden. Killing the Al Qaeda leader would serve the interests of justice and morale, but its long-term strategic impact would be limited. Indeed, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezb'allah and their ilk are merely manifestations of a broader ideology. Dismantling these groups is important; marginalizing the ideology that breeds them is more so. There may be no easy answers for accomplishing this leviathan task, but the first step involves asking the right questions.

Finally, failure to acknowledge the enemy's Islamic origin obscures an exploitable fault line: the moderates in the Muslim world who want nothing to do with Islamism. The viability of a truly moderate, truly Islamic "moderate Islam" has been the subject of continuing debate. Nevertheless, recent events in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq argue that, however we define them, moderating forces are at work in the Muslim world and therefore act as a natural wedge for undermining the radicals. This is an advantage that we cannot afford to ignore, but making use of it begins with recognizing the centrality of Islam to these geopolitical challenges.

While the West averts its eyes from the unpleasant realities of this conflict, Islamist leaders and operatives exhibit practical knowledge of their enemy and routinely apply it for strategic benefit.

Islamic radicals know enough about the West to understand that its values contrast sharply with their own -- a key prerequisite for ideological warfare. While ubiquitous American and European cultural exports have aided this process, it is also illuminating that some of the most virulent Islamists have experienced Western life directly. For example, Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb studied in Colorado from 1948 to 1950, where he was famously scarred by the dreadful sight of men and women dancing together at a church social. Senior Hamas figure Mousa Abu Marzook, Al Qaeda planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and many of the 9/11 hijackers likewise endured extended stays in the West. For Islamists, to know us is to hate us. And hatred is a powerful motivator.

The seeds of anti-Western antagonism have found fertile soil among the stagnant societies of the Arab and Muslim world, often with the assistance of secular authoritarian governments eager to deflect blame for their nations' failings. This two-pronged offensive -- so evident in Middle Eastern schools, mosques, and media -- has assembled a broad support base and recruited many foot soldiers to the Islamist cause. The divergence is striking. While our elites befog the nature of the enemy, Islamist elites focus all available resources on mobilizing their people for the fight.

True, adherents of radical Islam often promulgate a cartoonish view of Western culture, and their ideological straitjacket prevents them from apprehending the strengths of a system built on freedom, equality, respect for minorities, and the full participation of women. These cognitive shortcomings are, however, more than offset by a firm grasp of our weaknesses, among which are a general distaste for war, a divided polity, and a preoccupation with individual comfort. Seeing that they cannot defeat the West militarily or economically, Islamic supremacists have wisely sought an alternate route to victory by targeting these internal fissures.

The forces of radical Islam have shown themselves to be remarkably adept at the propaganda war, carefully heeding the observation of Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media." In the short term, their actions are calibrated to shift public opinion against the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to forestall action on future fronts by chipping away at our resolve. More ambitiously, they seek to cloud as many minds as possible into believing that jihadists are noble freedom-fighters standing up to imperialistic aggression.

Islamists work in concert with Western malcontents, efficiently utilizing them as force-multipliers. To this end, terrorists initiate waves of deadly but militarily insignificant suicide bombings in Iraq, confident that the bloodshed will be trumpeted by anti-war, anti-Bush media outlets eager to paint a picture of American defeat. Similarly, Islamists from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Osama bin Laden never miss an opportunity to accuse the West of greed, exploitation, torture, and even environmental ruin -- rhetoric that is clearly designed to resonate with the Left. Remove the references to Allah and his prophet, and their tracts read like Noam Chomsky.

Last but not least, the enemy employs tactics that exploit our well-known respect for human life. Jihadists across the Middle East take cover among civilian populations, rightly deeming it a win-win scenario: if we hesitate, then the extremists can function with impunity; if we engage, then any women and children caught in the crossfire provide fuel for the propaganda mill. Parallel reasoning leads terrorists to slaughter Muslim civilians in markets and mosques. By bombarding Westerners with images of mutilated innocents, the enemy plays on our aversion to war and aims to convince us that only by giving up and giving in can such carnage cease. Their methods may be despicable, but they are not without logic.

Sun Tzu would marvel at the economic and military advantages that the Western world enjoys over its Islamist rival, but he would also caution that technology alone does not win wars. Weapons are only as good as the strategies they serve, and the tailoring of successful strategies depends on knowing one's enemy -- his strengths and weaknesses, his inspirations and objectives. The West lags behind the forces of radical Islam in this critical regard, and the effects of the disparity grow clearer by the day.

Unfortunately, poor knowledge of the enemy represents only the beginning of Western troubles. More perilous is our deteriorating sense of ourselves -- of our civilization's unique character and what we have to defend. These issues will be tackled in the second half of this analysis as we examine the role of self-knowledge in the Long War and consider prospects for energizing the home front.

David J. Rusin holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania. His interests include foreign affairs and security policy. He may be contacted at
If you experience technical problems, please write to