Dagens Nyheter, July 25th 2006
The Futility of Military Superiority
NOT LONG AGO newspapers and magazines were filled with articles about the military superiority of the one and only superpower on earth. Everybody counted aircraft carriers and cruise missiles and long distance bombers and airborne divisions and everybody seemed to agree that the superiority was beyond all dispute and reach. Some made comparisons with the British Empire, others with Rome, yet others were defining an Empire that defied all comparisons.
The question then, was not if the US was the mightiest nation on earth, probably the mightiest nation in human History, but how it would use its superior power. The leaders of the superpower itself, among them its President, argued after the terror attacks on 9/11 that the power should be used to make regime changes in evil states and to fight a war against Terror. They also argued that the military superiority (along with “the American mission”) provided the US with both the right and the duty to unilaterally decide what regimes should be changed and how the War on Terror should be fought and whether international institutions and conventions thereby should be respected or not.
An influential opinion maker at the time, Robert Kagan, defended the emerging American high-handedness (unilateralism) by arguing that Americans were from Mars while Europeans were from Venus, by which he meant that the Americans unlike the Europeans had concluded that the world was still a jungle and the ability to win wars still a necessity for the ability to gain peace.
Subsequently The US National Security Strategy of July 2002 made it an express aim of US policy to maintain military superiority over all possible contenders. With maintained military superiority would follow more security not only for the US but somehow for the world as a whole. Military superiority would make for more expeditious changes of dangerous rogue regimes into US-friendly democracies and a speedier victory in the War on Terror. In the best case scenario, evil rogue regimes and their sponsored terrorist networks would fall apart from the mere shock and awe that American military superiority would instill in them. For a brief moment it was said that shock and awe had won the war in Iraq – the brief moment it looked like the war had been won.
But something happened on the superpower’s way to superpower. The wars that were to be won were lost. The enemies that were to be weakened were strengthened. The societies that were to be saved were destroyed. The global security that were to be enhanced was reduced. In area after area US military superiority seemed impossible to transform into global prestige and power, and even less so into the capacity to force an adversary “to do our will”, which according to Karl von Clausewitz is the ultimate purpose of military superiority.
So what had happened?
ONE THING that had happened was that the nature of the adversary had changed. The adversary that the military superiority was intended to overcome was no longer a threat, while the adversary that was emerging could not be overcome by military superiority. There were even adversaries that were nourished by US military superiority, that flourished in its wake, that developed weapons and strategies against which military superiority provided little defense.
Military superiority can be used for many things, but arguably not for defeating religiously or ideologically fundamentalist movements for whom chaos is a hotbed, fear a source of energy, humiliation a source of legitimacy, provocation a calculated strategy and terror a preferred weapon. At any rate not if the military superiority must be legitimized as a means to defend and expand freedom and democracy, which still is how US military superiority must be legitimized. Thus, it cannot reasonably be used for the violent cleansing and destruction of civilian populations who are not prepared “to do our will”. What the militarily superior Rome could allow itself to do, what Tacitus described as “making a desert and calling it peace”, solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, the military superior US cannot do without destroying the political foundations of its dominance.
The fact that Afghanistan and Iraq nevertheless are on their way of being made into deserts (of the kind that we call failed states), goes to show that military superiority as a means might work against freedom and democracy as a goal. And perhaps even against the more straightforward goal of increasing US global power and influence. The Iraq of daily violence, civilian disorder, sectarian breakup and military defeat is arguably becoming a more serious threat to US security than ever the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan the Talibans are back. In Iran the regime is exploiting the limits of US superpower. All over the Islamic world radical Jihadism is on the rise.
The strategy of military superiority has possibly had an even more self-defeating effect in Israel-Palestine, where the regional military superpower Israel (supplementing US strategy) is once again allowing itself to make a desert that it wants to call peace – or at least security. And where the outcome, besides yet another political and humanitarian disaster, will be less peace, less security and more adversaries of a kind that is resistant to military superiority.
You don’t have to be from Venus to argue that the warriors from Mars have seriously miscalculated what it takes to achieve peace and security on Earth.