Since you are reading this on a computer it is likely that you have experienced Google
Earth, a marvelous way to zoom in or out on just about any geographic point in the world. The first time I tried it I was fascinated by how the perspective changed during the zooming process. It works both ways of course, in and out. As you zoom out you get a wider perspective until human structures disappear and you see only geography. Ultimately you are left with only Carl Sagan’s “blue marble”. Astronauts have remarked on what seems obvious here, that the earth is mankind’s only lifeboat in an otherwise hostile void.
We now know that our species, homo sapiens, has been around for about 200,000 years, but meaningful written history exists for only about 3% of that time. Before that we were hunter-gatherers in tribes which almost didn’t survive at one point. Now, in so-called modern times, we are floundering in trying to deal with technologies that have far outstripped our political and social abilities. Here in the information age and with the potential of nuclear annihilation we are still tribal in nature.
Because military systems exist and can be used on command, it is tempting to try to tilt ongoing events such as the Libyan civil war by, as has been suggested, creating a “no-fly” zone. Seen up close, the situation appears to offer a tipping point that may affect the stability of the entire Middle East for decades to come. But what if we zoom out? Is it possible to see the Libyan situation in historical context and derive a strategy that would avoid past mistakes? I believe we can.
U.S. Secretary Robert Gates said some wise things in a speech recently. He said, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” It is wise advice. George Friedman, founder and head of Stratfor, the world’s largest private intelligence and forecasting company, took the occasion to expound on the subject and published one the clearest essays on the subject I have read. Titled, “Never Fight a Land War in Asia” , it clearly reinforces the lessons I have posted about before and does a better job of it. It is not a long read and I strongly recommend it, especially for all the war hawks out there.
Friedman draws what to me are some fairly obvious conclusions. He states,
The problem the United States has in the Eastern Hemisphere is that the size of the force needed to occupy a country initially is much smaller than the force needed to pacify the country. The force available for pacification is much smaller than needed because the force the United States can deploy demographically without committing to total war is simply too small to do the job — and the size needed to do the job is unknown.
Then, he offers,
Some people argue that the United States is insufficiently ruthless in prosecuting war, as if it would be more successful without political restraints at home. (emphasis supplied) The Soviets and the Nazis, neither noted for gentleness, were unable to destroy the partisans behind German lines or the Yugoslav resistance, in spite of brutal tactics. The guerrilla has built-in advantages in warfare for which brutality cannot compensate.
Friedman proceeds to analyze the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the same context, while sensibly rejecting Donald Rumsfeld’s dictum that, “You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” This and his other analysis is, in my opinion, most sensible and in keeping with the 8 -point Powell Doctrine. He ends his analysis by advocating diplomacy as the principal alternative to war-fighting, at least in land-war situations. Unfortunately, he also says that the current conflicts are “. . . not a policy failure of any particular U.S. president. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have encountered precisely the same problem . . . “, meaning in Afghanistan and Iraq. As I have opined before, the very lessons Friedman wishes to emphasize in his essay could have been foreseen by George W. Bush before he made his fateful decision to take Iraq.
Friedman’s analysis is clearly expressed. Now, can the U.S. tip the scales in the Libyan affair without becoming embroiled once again in a morass of tribal conflict? If we establish a no-fly zone, then where does that lead? If we arm the Libyan rebels and they then fail, will that lead to another Bay of Pigs fiasco? There is much to ponder here. Let us hope that the Obama administration can zoom out and do the right thing. And let us also hope that the CIA and other agencies are telling the boss the objective truth and not simply what he wants to hear. So far I think the administration is doing a good job.