Tuesday, 10 August 2004

Bush and the Art of War

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have made effective use of Sun Tzu’s thought, while the Bush Administration appears determined to ignore Sun Tzu’s lessons.

by Scott D. O'Reilly

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. -- Sun Tzu


Sun Tzu Written some 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the most penetrating and relevant works on the subjects of leadership and waging war. Its most timeless lesson, perhaps, is that “in all history, there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” Presently, the United States is engaged in two protracted wars--in Iraq and Afghanistan--and an ongoing conflict with a shadowy army of Islamic extremists who threaten American interests across the globe. So how does Sun Tzu’s advice bear on America’s predicament, and more particularly on the strategic vision of our leaders and that of our enemies? Unfortunately, bin Laden and al-Qaeda seem to have absorbed the lessons of Sun Tzu to a far greater extent than has the Bush administration.

Sun Tzu’s Lesson #1--Empathize with the Enemy

Empathizing with the enemy is an essential factor in defeating him. Not in the sense sympathizing with his aims or feeling his pain, but in understanding why he fights and how his worldview influences the tactics and strategies he will employ. In battling al-Qaeda and bin Ladenism the Bush administration has displayed a woeful ignorance of the most dangerous enemy America has faced since defeating Hitler’s fascism.

America has won a series of tactical battles aimed at defeating Islamic extremism--most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq--but it is losing the war against terrorism according to numerous counter-terrorism experts. This has helped lead to an extraordinary rift between the Bush administration and the intelligence services, with many current and former analysts contending that the Bush administration's tactics are directly playing into al-Qaeda’s extremely well thought-out strategy for defeating the United States. If their arguments are sound, America is potentially facing a catastrophic defeat with George W. Bush leading a charge that will make General Custer's last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn seem like a sensible military exercise in comparison.

Much of the problem is that the Bush administration has neither explained to the American public the true nature of the threat it faces from a growing Islamic insurgency, nor does it fully understand this threat itself. Contrary to administration assertions, bin Laden is not an irrational nihilist who hates America because of her freedoms and representative form of government. Rather, bin Laden is a highly patient, experienced, cunning, and immensely capable adversary who is waging jihad against the United States to achieve logical and attainable aims--to remove the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East and to ensure that the Arab people benefit from their region's oil revenue by receiving a fairer price per barrel.

Bin Laden has been able to tap into the widespread resentment many Arabs feel because of U.S. support of oppressive regimes that betray the Arab people by allowing the West to siphon off the region’s oil wealth that in turn fuels America's great military power which is used to subjugate and attack Muslims. Bin Laden is seen in much of the Muslim world as a figure akin to Robin Hood, a pious defender of the Islamic faith against a hi-tech but heartless American military that continually sheds Arab blood to steal Arab oil. Among a large portion of the Muslim world, bin Laden inspires reverence by the example of his piety and by gaining a reputation as a man of his word. Unlike his counterpart George Bush, bin Laden is a bona fide warrior whose predictions and pronouncements have proven more accurate than his adversary’s. Sun Tzu said that a successful commander “knits [his soldiers] together by good faith.” By hyping the threat that Iraq posed and repeatedly breaking promises to U.S. troops regarding the duration of their tours of duty, the Bush administration has flouted Sun Tzu’s sage advice that “if faith decays,” defeat follows.

Sun Tzu's Lesson # 2--Accommodate Yourself to the Enemy

The invasion of Iraq has bolstered bin Laden’s standing in the Arab world because he predicted that the United States would invade an oil rich Arab country to gain control of its petroleum, while simultaneously handing him a strategic victory by having America’s forces spread thin, close at hand, and easy to target. Like Mao Zedong, who traded territory for time, bin Laden recognizes that time favors an insurgency over a foreign occupying force, and his goal is to slowly bleed the United States to death, one soldier at a time, until America loses its resolve. The fatal predicament facing U.S. soldiers in Iraq is that they rarely know when or where the enemy will attack, or even how to distinguish foes from friends. Bin Laden, an expert in offense and defense, is obviously familiar with the thought Sun Tzu wrote:

Hence that general is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.

Contrary to administration assertions that al-Qaeda knows that if it loses in Iraq it loses worldwide, and that it is therefore putting up a desperate last ditch effort, al-Qaeda recognizes that the American occupation provides them numerous advantages beyond serving as a recruitment device. As Ayman al-Zawahari recognizes: “The Americans are facing a delicate situation [in Iraq]…. If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay they will continue to bleed to death.”

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