- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

By James S. Corum
Zenith Press, $28, 304 pages

Poor Carl von Clausewitz died of cholera in his early 50s. Otherwise, he would have completed his magnum opus On War and probably would have amended if not erased the nonsense quote for which he is immortalized: War is merely a continuation of politics by other means.

Of course war is the failure of politics, a fact the Prussian general knew firsthand from his service in the various campaigns against Napoleon. Take your favorite war — Punic, American or English Civil, or Chaco — and it is clear that war invariably is the statesman’s shortcut out of an insoluble political problem. Moreover, rarely if ever does a war actually resolve the impasse that was its proximate cause.

This quibble is relevant because Bad Strategies, the book before us, represents the first arriving bird of a flock of examinations of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq that now appears to be downsizing by presidential fiat, although the overture entanglement in Afghanistan may outlast us all, and the broader political chaos in the Middle East will be a legacy for our grandchildren.

This is not the first book written about the topic by any means. But Lt. Col. James S. Corum is one of the true heavyweight theorists about conflicts between large nation-states and ambiguous terrorist movements and the rogue regimes they often co-opt. Col. Corum honed his academic skills at no less than the Air Force Academy’s School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies and, later, at the Army’s General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. His previous work, Terrorism and Small Wars, is a standard textbook.

What makes this book stand out from the long shelf of books already published about how the United States stumbled into the conflict in Iraq is that it is essentially an after-action analysis. Col. Corum starts with the assumption that U.S. involvement in Iraq is at an end and that we were defeated in our objective of dealing a critical blow to the terrorism of fundamentalist Islamists by creating a stable democratic society.

Set aside for a moment the inconvenient fact that U.S. forces are not yet withdrawn from the conflict nor is American involvement in the broader regional conflict any closer to resolution just because President Obama now occupies the White House.

What we have here is akin to that extremely long shelf of books on why we lost the Vietnam War; it starts with the presumption of failure and then tries to set out a list of rules that, in retrospect, could have been followed by policymakers to produce a more successful outcome. Col. Corum also makes a strong argument that major nation states with traditional military structures are often ill-equipped to combat insurgencies that do not fight traditional battles but instead use guerrilla tactics terror and political argument to win power.

In theory, he has a point and it is one that must be addressed by Mr. Obama and his strategists as they confront the realities of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and all the other simmering points of danger around the world — realities they could conveniently ignore during last year’s campaign. The point is that major nation-states like the United States and its occasional allies too often are unwieldy and rigid in their execution of strategies that are founded on unrealistic goals and assumptions. Insurgents, in such situations, do enjoy the advantages of mobility, flexibility, innovation and popular support.

One of the problems the author does not address is how to sort out when an insurgency is truly a rebellion by a portion of a populace — say the Patriots in our own War for Independence — and when they are proxies for a rival major power who prefers to wage war by other means instead of risking a stand-up, all-out fight. To reduce counterinsurgency tactics to a task of winning hearts and minds without considering what else is driving the conflict seems as doomed to disappointment as George Bush declaring Mission Accomplished before the hard part had really begun.

Col. Corum gives us four examples of how a major power failed to defeat an insurgent opponent. The case studies include France’s war in Algeria from 1954 to 1962, Britain’s conflict in Cyprus from 1955 to 1959, the American involvement in Vietnam, which he casts from 1950 to 1975, and unsurprisingly the U.S. conflict in Iraq,which he dates from 2003 to 2007.

The central part of his thesis is, A key requirement in waging a successful counterinsurgency campaign is to understand the context of the country and population one is dealing with. Insurgencies are about politics, and the political goals of the insurgents are usually easy to understand. Yet in the four insurgencies examined in this book, the government’s top military and strategic leadership repeatedly failed to understand the political and social context of the population and the insurgent viewpoint. The national aspirations of the Greek Cypriots and Vietnamese were well known. The grievances of the majority of Algerians were well known. … That various ethnic groups in Iraq were likely to use violence to attain power was recognized by U.S. military planners before the war.

All well and good. But if this book is the harbinger of the kind of incomplete analysis we are to confront as we study how better to conduct our strategic struggle in the fluid confluence of insurgency, terrorism and international gangsterism that is our world today, then we need a broader canvas. We have to broaden our scope of inquiry beyond Col. Corum’s assumption that insurgents usually are nascent nationalists bent on wholesome self-government.

Taking his four case studies and widening the lens a bit is instructive. One of the elements in the British struggle in Cyprus was the fact that the desires of the large Greek majority on the island were being fanned by the government in Athens and the Greek Orthodox Church in what the sizable but vulnerable Turkish minority viewed as a very real threat. While one must be horrified at the brutal tactics the French used in suppressing the Algerian nationalists, their strategists also had to consider that the Soviet Union was funneling aid and to some extent directing the struggle as part of its broader effort to destabilize the vulnerable Western European democracies of which France and Italy were the most vulnerable.

As for Vietnam, there is an irony but even more books on the subject would be useful. Missing from the broad analysis that assigns Vietnam to the American lost column has been any detailed analysis of the cost of that war to both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Both expended vast treasure and manpower and ultimately ended up fracturing their own alliance as a result of the strains caused by winning the war against the hated imperialists. The outcome of wars often is decided long after the guns fall silent.

Col. Corum correctly notes that the much improved counterinsurgency campaign was succeeding and he is spot on in arguing that it is not just the hearts and minds of the target population that must be won; the public will to support the war by the populace of the major power is perhaps even more essential. To the point on the controversy over Iraq, the shifting tides of American popular support for the struggle leave Mr. Obama in something of a quandary right now. But more to the point, any future consideration of post-Iraq strategy (if that day ever really arrives) must include in the calculus the role of Iran and its ambitions, Israel and its fears, the deterioration of India and Pakistan’s relations and a host of other issues in addition to the conflicting desires of the various tribal claimants in that troubled land.

This book is a well-written and good first take on the great problem of our day. More consideration is needed.

James Srodes is a veteran Washington journalist and author.

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