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Is the Pentagon’s “Overmatch” Strategy Matchless?

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Boulder, CO, USA on 5/25/2015 © Infinite_Eye / Shutterstock

February 20, 2019 09:25 EDT

The White House has a goal and the Pentagon, a program built on the monopolistic notion of competing in an unfair fight.

In an article for The Nation, Defense Correspondent Michael Klare reveals and explains in detail the “new grand strategy” shared by the Trump administration and the Pentagon. It has a shiny new name: “overmatch.” Klare explains it in these terms: “Overmatch decrees that the United States must retain military and technological superiority over Russia and China (and all other potential challengers) for as far into the future as we can see.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 


The confusion of excess and success, thanks to a philosophy that considers excess to be a recipe for success, reflecting an ingrained mindset in overweight cultures that eventually leads them toward self-destruction. 

Contextual note

The term appears to derive its meaning from the world of team sports where coaches devise and apply their strategies of “matchups” by assigning the defenders they believe best adapted to guard or counter particular offensive players, and vice versa. Like everything else in the hyperreal system that institutional culture in the US has become, the responsibility of defense, justifying a nation’s permanent military, has been transformed from the responsibility of protecting citizens and the nation’s political infrastructure to the equivalent of a spectator sport.

The idea of sport in overmatch links with business. Both have competition as a core notion. Klare cites then-Defense Secretary James Mattis who on two occasions evoked the notion of “competitive edge,” a term proper to business even more than to sport. The metaphor becomes downright dangerous when applied to the military. Armies don’t compete with one another. They either stay at home or they clash. Businesses compete for market share. Monopolies alone vie for domination.

On the other hand, the governments of nations may compete for influence on the world stage in various ways, somewhat like businesses. But that tends to be a feature of colonial or neocolonial systems. Democracies, at least theoretically, have the responsibility of structuring their military principally to respond to threats, not to compete with other nations.

Mixing the logic of sport, business, governmental function and defense tells us a lot about the evolution of a society that has transformed all aspects of public and communal life into a form of sporting contest and entertainment, in which all action aims at winning a competition and/or making a profit. When civilization reaches that stage, we should ask ourselves: What has been sacrificed? The simple answer is any trace of social solidarity and human values. When Klare evokes the ethical dimension of the “new grand doctrine” he analytically concludes: “The moral flaws in overmatch derive from its repudiation of reciprocity in international relations.” Reciprocity, which requires intelligence and tact, is dead. Intelligence will soon be dominantly artificial. Will tact be as well?

Another way of stating this might be that “overmatch” leads but to one logical end: match over. And when nuclear capacity is the measure, at the end of the match, we can be sure that the winners will also be the losers.

Historical note

If the 20th-century Cold War (let’s call it Cold War I) represented a concept based on balance, or precarious safety through symmetry, the new Cold War (Cold War II) reflects a radically different mindset, the same that has taken over thinking about the economy. It focuses on macrostatistics and technology and is obsessed with size and growth. As Klare describes it, “overmatch differs from Cold War strategy not only because it presumes two (and possibly more) major competitors instead of just one, but also because it requires a perpetual struggle for dominance in every realm, including in trade, energy, and technology.” In other words, the scale of the effort itself is likely to overmatch even the wealthiest nation’s mobilizable resources.

A year ago, Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee, “Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare.” Wars used to be about controlling territory and defending or instituting legal authority. Now they are seen as competitive outings to be managed (like a business) and coached (like a sporting match) rather than “waged.”

Mattis concluded that the US must “restore its competitive edge in an era of re-emerging long-term strategic competition.” But unlike the example of traditional businesses that compete for market share, the model the military establishment has in mind with overmatch is the same that has taken over the economy in the age of Google, Amazon and Microsoft: monopoly.

Overmatch simply means monolithic dominance allowing one actor to write and enforce the behavioral rules for all the others. The National Security Strategy reads: “The United States must retain overmatch—the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.”

The problem now, particularly compared to Cold War I, is that instead of a one-to-one competition with the Soviet Union, it is now a competition against the entire world, starting with China, Russia and Iran, but possibly including India, Turkey and even Europe, or at least western Europe. The current US strategy — as expressed by Donald Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo — to the extent that it manifests any coherence, appears to consist of breaking up the European Union by splitting it into east and west, as evidenced by last week’s Warsaw conference on Iran. In this scenario, reversing the Iron Curtain scenario, the US would place Eastern Europe under the umbrella of a patchwork coalition they are now trying to form with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and maybe India at its core, and possibly a post-Brexit UK standing in for Western Europe. Should we call it a coalition of the chilling?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Updated: February 21, 2019] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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