What would Clausewitz recommend we do about ISIS?


Mark Perry recently posed this theoretical question to a number of military strategists and found a broad consensus: Oddly, those most familiar with Clausewitz’s thinking issue nearly identical responses to this question. “Clausewitz would start by asking us what it is that we want to accomplish,” the Rand Corporation’s David Johnson, a retired U.S. Army Colonel says. Johnson, who has read On War “from cover to cover numerous times” notes that, for Clausewitz, finding answers to fundamental questions is the key to shaping a military strategy. “You have to understand the war you’re in, and I would bet that, with ISIS, Clausewitz would say that we haven’t done that. We’re too enthralled with trying to figure out who ISIS is  — instead of focusing on what they do. In truth, I don’t think it’s much of a mystery. If you go to Istanbul and look south the Caliphate is right there. You can point to it. It’s a state that views us as an enemy. What’s the mystery?”

[Historian and Clausewitz scholar Christopher] Bassford agrees. “I think the first thing ‘Chuck’ Clausewitz would do is wonder why the U.S. government, and the West in general, is reluctant to acknowledge ISIS as a ‘state,’” he wrote to me in an email. “ISIS controls territory, has a capital city in Raqaa, and for the most part practices a fundamentally conventional, though particularly vicious, kind of warfare. It uses terrorism, but it’s not just a terrorist group. And I also think Clausewitz would wonder why the French say they’re surprised to find themselves ‘at war’ after the Paris attack. They have been bombing ISIS for months.” While Clausewitz’s ideas are not restricted to state-on-state warfare, Bassford argues that we should accept that, for practical purposes, ISIS is a state. Indeed, in a strategy he calls “Let-the-Wookiee-Win,” we should do what we can to make ISIS more state-like. “After all, we know how to destroy states  —  we’re very good at it,” he argues.

One of the things that [U.S. Naval War College professor Donald] Stoker, Bassford, Johnson and many in the military find compelling about Clausewitz is that he views war as a subject that can be studied, understood and that, like engineering (say) or architecture, or any other discipline, improved on. It is possible to get good at killing, and if you’re better at it than your enemy  — if you break your enemy’s will to resist (as he would say)  —  you’ll win. On War provides a slew of these undiluted but axiomatic understandings. Though Clausewitz was a civilized man who recognized war’s horrors, he issued these axioms with a stern warning: “Kind-hearted people might think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed,” he writes, “and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a most dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst . . . This is how the matter must be seen. It would be futile  —  even wrong  —  to try and shut one’s eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality.”

It is this unblinking ability to call war what it is that has given Clausewitz such a dedicated following that large numbers of military officers have worked to grasp his thinking, and vocabulary. “Clausewitz says that the purpose of war is to achieve a particular political end,” Stoker says. “He argues that the best route to doing this is to attack the enemy’s center of gravity, the center of his strength. That might seem obvious now, but many of the most important parts of our current military thinking were first identified by him.”

Of course much of what Clausewitz tapped into in On War was a reflection of what professional soldiers already knew, and know. Thus, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his famously Clausewitzian statement on war without, apparently, ever having read him. “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Sherman’s unflinching calculus (that true humanity consists in waging war unrelentingly, so as to end it sooner) is, in many ways, a perfect distillation of the U.S. military’s traditional mistrust of the narrative propounded by counterinsurgency advocates that the “center of gravity in a counterinsurgency is the protection of the population that hosts it.” That might have been true in western Iraq, but few would argue that it’s the case with ISIS  —  particularly after the attacks in Paris. “The Germans and Japanese were held in a vice grip by their leaders in World War Two,” Christopher Bassford says, “but that didn’t stop us from burning down their cities. If it’s safer to be with ISIS than against it, ISIS will retain its hold on the population it now controls.”

In fact, Bassford’s views reflect a growing consensus inside the U.S. military’s upper echelons that a cruel war against ISIS now, no matter how distasteful, will save the lives of many decent people  —  including many Americans  — later. [Continue reading…]

“I think in Syria the primary focus now must be destroying ISIS,” says Bernie Sanders.

Donald Trump promises that if he becomes president, he will “bomb the hell out of ISIS.”

There’s no shortage of tough talk among those who want to become commander-in-chief.

But how would these words be translated into action when it comes to the major population centers under ISIS’s control?

Does destroying ISIS in Mosul, for instance, mean destroying a city in which more than a million Iraqi civilians still live?

Clearly, if the remedy for dealing with ISIS ends up being more destructive than ISIS itself, it is no remedy at all.

Moreover, as much as it is true that ISIS needs to be recognized as a state, it is also more than a state. It has a physical base in the territory under its control, but its ideological base is globally dispersed.

For ISIS followers, already convinced that the world stands in violent opposition to Islam, the destruction of their embryonic state is less likely to represent defeat than have the opposite effect by empowering a death-defying passion for revenge.

The flaws in what is physically manifest can easily be forgotten if through its destruction, ISIS as a state is then reinvigorated as an inspiring legend.

Bombs can destroy buildings and kill people, but they don’t destroy ideas.

As American presidential candidates currently vie with each other in a contest over who can make the most compelling expression of their desire to crush ISIS, they are, as much as anything else, articulating a view of America’s rightful dominance in the world. In the eyes of ISIS fighters and their supporters, they themselves are thus made the underdog in a contest between right and might.

In reality, it is ISIS which is the oppressive force which must be toppled from below rather than above.

ISIS can only be destroyed by those who will directly benefit from its elimination.

If liberation from ISIS only brings renewed subjugation from Damascus and Baghdad, then those who might take up this fight are being told what they must fight against without being offered any real reward.

Clausewitz’s answer to the question, what do we do about ISIS?, might be less blunt than the military analysts are assuming. Indeed, he may well have said it’s the wrong question.

Without changing the basic conditions that facilitated ISIS’s emergence, it’s destruction is likely to be impossible.

ISIS is the beneficiary of the status quo which is sustained above all by the Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia — a coalition of armies, air forces, and militias that in spite of their declared opposition to ISIS, have actually done little to inhibit its growth.

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2 thoughts on “What would Clausewitz recommend we do about ISIS?

  1. Syd

    “…If liberation from ISIS only brings renewed subjugation from Damascus and Baghdad, then those who might take up this fight are being told what they must fight against without being offered any real reward….”

    I agree, but I would also add that the renewed subjugation could also come from Riyadh, Doha, and Kuwait City. You might think that there are moderate rebels who will dominate the post-Assad Syria, but the Gulf monarchies are betting big money that you’re wrong. Egypt is the template for most of them.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    In a post-Assad Syria, there will be no shortage of other foreign powers vying for influence, aside from the Gulf monarchies. As for Egypt serving as a template, let’s not forget that throughout the course of the revolution there, the military never actually lost control, nor did they destroy the country — they just rode out the storm.

    The power with the greatest influence in Syria is still Iran and even if they are eventually willing to ditch their client, Assad, it’s not as though they are just going to walk away.

    Rather than envisioning Egypt as a template, I think Lebanon might be a closer fit — a weak state with a chronically dysfunctional government where militia power competes with democratic power.

    As much as it might sound pessimistic to view Lebanon as a model in any sense, there is actually a small glimmer of hope there in as much as it appears to be a rare place where the Saudis and Iranians seem capable of making compromises. With Saudi support, it looks like Lebanon may soon get a new president (after not having had one for 18 months): Suleiman Franjieh, a close friend of Bashar al-Assad!

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