Sun Tzu has answers for ISIS

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The great Chinese master strategist Sun Tzu needs to be America’s guide in dealing — or not dealing, when it is appropriate — with ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadi movements around the Middle East, not German strategist Carl von Clausewitz, the advocate of a direct knock-out approach to war.

British historian Andrew Roberts’ magnificent work on President Franklin Roosevelt, Gen George Marshall, Winston Churchill and British Gen. Sir Alan Brooke during World War II, Masters and Commanders is extremely relevant here. Marshall and the American military, who had read Clausewitz, were Clausewitzians all the way, they were clearly profoundly influenced by the straightforward “hit’em on the head” style of Jack Dempsey, the great all-American heavyweight champion of the world, in the 1920s.

But the British were Sun Tzu-type, stay on the periphery strategists. They practiced “dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee” fighting, 20 years before Mohammed Ali came on the scene. Indeed, until the great Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery came along in fall 1942 and gave them true and integrated artillery and air power punch, the British Army only punched like a butterfly too.

suntzuAs Roberts makes clear, the US straightforward hit ’em with overwhelming power in the central axis of advance was exactly the right thing to do from 1944 onwards, when, as Churchill himself acknowledged, the Soviet Red Army had already knocked the stuffing out of the Wehrmacht.

However, in 1942 and 1943, Roberts confirms, the US and Britain simply did not have remotely enough men and materials, and no command of the air, to invade Normandy or anywhere else. The true believers in a 1943 landing — Marshal, influential US staff war planner then-Lt. Col. (later four-star. General) Albert Wedemeyer and others (General Dwight D, Eisenhower was originally in agreement with them, but he learned from experience to change his original opinion) would have presided over a catastrophe.

Why dwell on this in dealing with ISIS/ISL, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or Islamic State in the Levant?

A screenshot from the 2004 hostage video, where Nick Berg was beheaded by al-Zarqawi's group. (Wikipedia)
A screenshot from the 2004 hostage video, where Nick Berg was beheaded by al-Zarqawi’s group. (Wikipedia)

Because dealing with ISIS/ISL crucially requires Americans to think like Sun Tzu, not like Clausewitz. To focus on the broader, non-military aspects of war and the strategic framework far more than the tactical nuts and bolts that Americans have always been so good at.

The US also has to abandon former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell’s famous slogan, “We broke it, so we must fix it.” That can apply in some cases but not all.

The more we try to fix our messes in the Middle East, the more we make them worse.

Where ever we destroy existing state structures in the Middle East in the name of “supporting; human rights and democracy, we simply open the way for ISIS and al-Qaeda (and for the far worse Shiite forces who will follow them) to take over. This pattern happened in Gaza, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Where ever we forced previously effective Arab governments to “democratize,” American-style, it was never secular moderate, middle class democrats who took over. It’s been ISIS, al-Qaeda, or the Egyptian Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood every time.

51vpzoRRtJL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I explained why this happened and predicted how it would happen repeatedly again, in my 2008 book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.

Where ever strong state structures still exist, like the Saudis under the late King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, and Egypt under former President Hosni Mubarak and possibly again now under current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the Islamists couldn’t find a crack in the wall. Pressure from President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “democratize” gave the Islamists their opening to eventually seize power in Egypt and in Gaza, through Hamas. As Big Brother George’s kid brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush memorably said in his speech to the Chicago Council of World Affairs. “Mistakes were made.”

America doesn’t need another cycle of hyper-activity and direct military action in the Middle East (the punch-‘em-on-the-nose Clausewitzian solution). It needs to learn from Sun Tzu and the legendary hero of the Roman Republic Fabius Maximus Cunctator (Fabius the Delayer). Fabius knew the Roman legions could never defeat the invincible Carthaginian military genius Hannibal in battle, so he simply outwaited Hannibal and strategically isolated him.

Some 2,200 years later, America needs a Fabius Cunctator strategy in the Middle East today. It needs to end the witless surge of energy Bush II, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their neocons injected into the region.

Instead we are dialing up a new injection of all those manic military amphetamines for our next melodramatic injection of kinetic energy disastrously misapplied.

There is only one way that can end. And it won’t be well.

Follow Martin Sieff @MartinSieff