The Paris Tragedy and the End of Strategic Thinking

Francois Hollande

© Shutterstock

November 17, 2015 17:51 EDT

Everything indicates that the West has given up on strategic thinking.

The horrendous and carefully synchronized attacks in Paris on November 13 have provided a new occasion to fill the airwaves and pages of the press with the familiar themes, memes and sentiments our skilled rhetoricians in politics and the media are so good at trotting out. The database of scripts to read from is there for all to exploit. Listening in the immediate aftermath to French President François Hollande, who was clearly wondering how best to recycle his ten-month-old “Je suis Charlie” speeches, I couldn’t help hearing the echo of George W. Bush in late 2001. Reuters succinctly summed up the surreal comedy of it in a single sentence. “Faced with war, the country must take appropriate action,” he said, without saying what that meant.

Appropriate action? Hell, we don’t even know what “war” means these days: conflicts between nations or military mobilization against criminal bands?  So how are we to judge what the appropriate decisions might be? (Hollande’s exact words in his native French were “décisions appropriées”—decisions, not action). Then again, why should leaders explain what they mean since terrorism calls for “appropriate” action, which of course requires no explanation since our leaders have all latitude to define what is appropriate? In a climate of fear, we want results, not words.

Hollande does provide a justification for these undefined actions that will result from his appropriate decisions. He tells us the assault was conducted against France, and more significantly, “against the values we defend everywhere in the world.” I hear this as roughly the equivalent of Bush’s “they hate us for our freedoms.” It also implies that because our values are, by definition, right and can be applied “everywhere,” we are justified in “defending” them by any “appropriate” means, which may include invading or unilaterally attacking those nations that fail to respect or apply them to our satisfaction. As any lawyer will tell you, the best defense is attack.

President Hollande continues by describing France as “a free country that speaks to the whole planet.” Most countries speak to their own populations, but French exceptionalism is a tradition older and in some ways more revered even than American exceptionalism. The French megaphone is intended to echo at least to the outer reaches of Francophonie but also, thanks to translation into English, to the entire world. French freedom is believed by the French to be a model for humanity that deserves to be enforced through the logic of war.

Paris Attacks

© Shutterstock

This kind of reasoning, based on the idea of universal political values (the vaunted “valeurs républicaines” or French republican values) actually takes us beyond the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. Especially coming from a former European colonial power, we should recognize it as an enduring vestige of the explicit “civilizing” mission that led European countries for more than four centuries to export their values to the rest of humanity through political, economic and military domination.

War of Revenge

Two days after the Paris massacre and three days after the unmentioned and largely neglected Beirut massacre, the entire population of France is left wondering what Hollande’s promise to be “impitoyable” (merciless) may mean in their daily lives. Will we see soldiers at every street corner to reassure us, whose sight paradoxically at the same time helps to instill a climate of permanent fear? Will France join US President Barack Obama in an eventual new war against both the Islamic State (IS) and Russia, concretizing the long-standing agreement between the two governments on the priority of dislodging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

In his public discourse Hollande is, at least for the moment, playing on the classic motif of a war of revenge against the soulless and diabolical barbarians capable of slaughtering hundreds of innocents in France’s otherwise peaceful capital. Within two days of the attacks in Paris, France’s merciless response has been to conduct a series of massive airstrikes coordinated with the United States. This was clearly intended to show the nation’s defiance, resolution and strength, providing immediate proof of the formidable capacity of the two most deeply engaged Western powers to continue inflicting damage on their enemies.

Although it’s far too early to tell where this might lead, it would seem to indicate an orientation toward increased alignment with US policy, whatever that happens to be. More a stance than an actual strategy, its immediate aim is to reassure the public by demonstrating France’s ability to respond with force to even the most hateful provocations.

But most observers are aware that bombing raids, however damaging to their targets and however spectacular to report in the daily news feeds, have been singularly ineffective in “degrading” the Islamic State, to use Obama’s preferred formulation of Western objectives. Every conflict since Vietnam should have taught both the French and the US that the sheer weight and power of bombs, the speed and accuracy of their aircraft and weapons and continual campaigns of expanding material destruction have no serious long-term strategic value when the stakes are no longer simple national regimes and standing armies. The focus on regime change—repeated in recent years in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt—is a strategic holdover of post-Westphalian Europe that has consistently led to disaster in today’s world.

Because he insists on France’s engagement in a war—much as Bush did in 2001—at some point, Hollande will theoretically be expected to outline a strategy of war. But is any strategy credible? Is any strategy possible?

The Absence of Strategy

Many serious commentators have noticed that since 2001, the most active Western governments in the War on Terror and their public media have stopped bothering with the subtleties of strategy, replacing it with two approaches to their staging of the public drama, both borrowed from Hollywood: First, what I call the casting or the shifting game of alliances between traditional nations who agree to be complicit in war devoid of strategy. And second, the reframing of the conflict as a simple moral tale, a struggle between good and evil.

World Trade Center

September 11, 2001 © Shutterstock

Announce the stars and frame the drama.

The First Gulf War provided the last historical opportunity to devise and employ well-delineated military strategy in a conflict. CNN rose to fame by explaining and demonstrating to the public on a daily basis the strategies of two governments with traditional armies in an officially declared war played out on well-defined territories. The toppling of Saddam Hussein at the end of the Second Gulf War and the inability of the conquering powers to constitute an effective territorial government that can run an operational military has turned the whole idea of military strategy into a tragic farce.

The result is a vacuum now occupied by IS, which is neither a true political entity nor a local culture, and therefore, it defies any effort at understanding what it is or how it works. Thus, the focus of strategic thinking has turned away from the conduct of war—the steps toward confrontation and eventual victory—to embrace a much more abstract notion of shared mission by likeminded political partners in a moral drama based on spreading or defending their values. The overriding pragmatic question has become, who will ally with whom to defeat evil? How this will be accomplished is not only unknown; it is eliminated from consideration.

In a moral combat, the will of the heroes and divine grace are seen as the essential ingredients. The details of strategy are forgotten and increasingly hidden from view. The focus of the public drama shifts away from the impenetrable fog of local rivalries to something easier for the public to understand: the casting or team-building process, a game of construction of collaborative forces. It gives us our vaunted “coalitions of the willing,” if not out-and-out military alliances. Who will join the struggle? Who will lead the team? How will the roles be distributed?

Such coalitions are united by their perception of a common moral cause, defeating evil. Thus, the type of reporting that CNN deftly placed in the spotlight during the first Gulf War, dedicating hours to describing the traditional chess game of military strategies, has disappeared in favor of a purely moral combat that pits the enlightened, technologically advanced nations of the West who represent good against the shadowy forces of evil, seen as oozing from a culture in the East that perpetuates the barbary of the Dark Ages. Bush famously spoke of the axis of evil. President Obama called the Paris massacre an “attack on the civilized world,” implying, perhaps inadvertently, that there is an uncivilized world that needs to be opposed and conquered. Thus, any nation that considers itself civilized will be expected to join the combat against the forces that threaten civilization.

When recruiting allies and designating evil sum up the government’s and the public’s view of the struggle, there is no longer a need for elaborating and discussing strategy. The fact is that even the strategists no longer have a strategy. Or rather they are left to struggle with shifting, poorly perceived notions of tactical alliances on the ground—not strategic ones between nations—that they will then run like amateur science experiments, mixing chemicals they desperately hope will produce the desired effect. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria itself, with its micro-alliances aimed at destabilizing and dethroning Assad. But it has been obvious for some time on a macro scale in Iraq due to the Shia-Iranian connection that has been following a decade of neutralization of Sunnis.

Some rare commentators noticed long ago that Osama Bin Laden actually had a strategy that was, to our uncomprehending minds, unrelated to the goal of military victory. The spectacular provocation of 9/11 was designed to set the US on a course of self-destruction and potential collapse.

The drama of the war we now have focuses on two military virtues: technical, industrial and scientific superiority (civilization), coupled with the hero’s will to conquer the barbarians (good vs evil). The US has had a hard time fabricating the heroes, of which only a few names remain in public memory: Chris Kyle (American Sniper), Jessica Lynch and Pat Tilman. Unfortunately, two of those three—Lynch and Tilman—turned out to be tragic victims of not only the war, but also the Pentagon’s PR effort. And the third, equally ambiguous, needed the fame and talent of Clint Eastwood to emerge as a possible role model for avid spectators of the war. This obviously wasn’t the kind of war that produces popular heroes. Instead, the perception of heroism and human valor has been channeled into the hyper-realism of video games, where every youngster can act out the dream of defending our values and humiliating and destroying the evil enemy.

In the First Gulf War, all the elements of traditional political strategy were available to be exploited by our enterprising media: a dictator with a solidly implanted government and army; and territorial ambition (the occupation of Kuwait) with, as an added feature, the complex rivalries of nations on both sides of the Persian Gulf. How things have changed! In the way of strategy or heroism, our Western leaders have nothing left to offer the media apart from their own resolution to be merciless and carry out a commonly agreed but strategically undefined mission. The actual effects of the tactics employed reveal the tragic consequences of the absence of strategy.

The New York Times reported the following on the French airstrikes two days after the Paris massacre: “Warplanes continued to hover over the city close to midnight, according to residents and activist groups. Residents have seen the city bombed by Syrian, American and Russian warplanes. They have been terrorized by public executions by the Islamic State. Now they are wary of yet another power arriving to pummel the city.”

Osama Bin Laden’s Thinking

The nature of the permanent war located in and around the Middle East, and now felt to be spreading to “civilization,” seems to be telling us that the era of national strategies is over. As Republican presidential candidates rage on about how, in their eyes, the underfunded US military must be reinforced and deployed in a suitably aggressive way so that neither the Islamic State nor Vladimir Putin, nor China can carry on with their shenanigans in the Middle East, Ukraine and the South China Sea, most commentators have noticed that behind the rhetoric, there isn’t a shred of strategy. Which is only logical, because those who actually do have the responsibility of strategy in government and the military no longer have the means of defining one.

Syrian tank

© Shutterstock

Some rare commentators noticed long ago that Osama Bin Laden actually had a strategy that was, to our uncomprehending minds, unrelated to the goal of military victory. The spectacular provocation of 9/11 was designed to set the US on a course of self-destruction and potential collapse. Although few in the media are willing to admit it, the political and social atmosphere today is dominated by a sense of vulnerability, the fear of the collapse of a once proud civilization. That is why it has become urgent for some to call for the deporting of all immigrants and refusal to admit any new ones. That is why they insist we must beef up the military and, after an eight-year pause, put a pair of cojones in the White House. And that is also why, from a contrasting point of view, we are told that we urgently need to reduce inequality. Everyone has a solution because everyone is acutely aware of the problem.

Thomas Mann claimed in the early 1950s that Adolf Hitler had won the war—that the rational state-controlled military-industrial system that Hitler had put in place had migrated across the Atlantic along with a number of its top engineers, administrators and managers. That obviously wasn’t Hitler’s strategy or ambition. He desperately wanted to do it from home. But victors always take the spoils and, in this case, victory over Germany provided the opportunity for those in the know to import at bargain basement prices the technology, organizational skill and scientific brains that had built Germany’s powerful industrial state.

In a similar way, it might also be claimed today that Bin Laden won the War on Terror—although there will be no victory day since there is no way of knowing when that war may be declared over, by either side. Bin Laden’s aim wasn’t to take over the United States or impose Islamic law, as some would like to believe, but to weaken and unsettle the mighty American military and economic empire and its extension in the Middle East (in particular, Saudi Arabia and Israel). That’s why he symbolically attacked Wall Street (finance) and the Pentagon (military) and possibly targeted Congress or the White House with the fourth plane. He effectively created, first of all, panic and doubt on a massive scale and then provoked a series of political decisions whose accumulated long-term effect included undermining the economy, creating a permanent climate of fear, alienating a significant portion of the world’s population and weakening the protections of the Constitution for US citizens.

It could be said that the economy succumbed in 2008 and that the slow deterioration of the social fabric due to that collapse has been well under way ever since.  The nature of political debate itself highlights this trend as candidates outdo each other to prove that they hold the keys to keeping America safe. The question of “which America?” remains in the background as political discourse has become increasingly polarized.

“End of History”

Has anyone in politics and the mainstream media acknowledged, even as a mere possibility, this strategic orientation of the terrorists we are making such an effort to degrade and destroy? Have any of them even suggested that our enemies might just have a strategy, in particular a long-term strategy associated with a war of attrition? Would it be possible in politics or the media to entertain the idea that rather than seeing them as a barbarian horde attempting to conquer civilization through sheer brutality, they are executing a plan to undermine it from within, and not by subversion but by confusion and misappropriation of resources?

Everything indicates that the West has given up on strategic thinking. One of the problems is that it doesn’t sell, at least not as well as the old brands of political action. What is now called strategy is nothing more than conditioned reflex, repeating what we believe to be the successful strategic attitudes of the past. The rest is political PR and posturing. As in chess, authentic strategy is based on the mastery of combinatorial logic, a good dose of psychology (understanding your opponent) and the ability to anticipate and adapt to a long series of tactical moves. But as in contemporary corporate culture where we assess value only in terms of quarterly results and where investors’ perception of value is increasingly speculative rather than founded on a careful analysis of resources and contexts, long-term strategy in politics and the military exists only as an artifact of history—the tale we tell of the way wars and revolutions were once fought and executed. For Western powers, the long-term exists only in the past. But for others, including our barbaric enemies, that may not yet be the case.

If that’s true, we desperately need to civilize them quickly so these barbaric but wily enemies will end up seeing the advantages of thinking the same way as we think, focused on short-term and individual goals rather than long-term collective ones. Thus, will we get them to lower their guard, lose their strategic focus and allow us to declare “check mate” as they politely lay their king face down on the board? If we can do that, we will have not only defeated terrorism, but also achieved Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.”

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

Photo Credit: Drop of Light / Joseph Gruber / Volodymyr Borodin / Dan Howell /

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