Napoleon famously preferred lucky generals to the most brilliant ones, and there is no doubt that luck plays an enormous role in life, whether through our own individual efforts or from earth-shaking events. My own guru, Machiavelli, believed that even the greatest leader could do no better than master fortune half the time. For the rest, life is full of surprises.
On those rare occasions when I am asked for strategic advice, I invariably begin by asking: “What if it fails?” Most of the time we fail, don’t we? Heroes are rare, and triumphs, more often than not, are short-lived. Now, more than ever before, change is rapid and unforeseen consequences are commonplace.
So with that in mind, let’s consider the possibilities that our enemies, left to their own devices, are screwing up and are headed for greater and lesser disasters. No matter how feckless our foreign policy may be, the bad guys might find some way to rescue us from the consequences of our own idiocies.
My favorite example of an evil force seemingly hell-bent on wrecking its own destiny is Iran.
On paper, Iran should be mopping up the international battlefields. It’s a big country — 75 million or so — and has abundant natural resources, a key strategic location, substantial military power, a decent educational system, leadership committed to expanding national domination of the region today and the rest of the world tomorrow, terrorist proxies galore, and no apparent counterforce this side of Israel.
Iran’s big enemy, the United States, has been most agreeable in accepting Iranian demands, from easing sanctions to accepting Iranian armed intervention in Syria (pro-Assad) and Yemen.
And yet …
Iran is riven by social and political conflict, the economy is terrible, there is significant opposition to the regime (Iranian leaders know this, and the country now has the highest per-capita execution rate in the world), and — bad luck? — there are stories that their top military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, has been wounded, maybe fatally.
Elsewhere, other jihadi forces are splintering, including the Taliban, along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which you might not be following day by day. And various good reporters, from Michael Weiss to the New York Times, are talking about a significant drop in the fortunes of the Islamic State. They say that defections are up and recruitment is down.
[T]hat statehood project is now in distress, perhaps more so than at any other time since the Islamic State began seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, according to a range of interviews with people who have recently fled. Under pressure from airstrikes by several countries, and new ground offensives by Kurdish and Shiite militias, the jihadists are beginning to show the strain.
This is happening despite military support from Damascus, Tehran and Moscow as well as a helpful hand from Ankara (Erdogan is bombing Kurds who are certainly not allies of IS).
Whether you credit these setbacks to their own incompetence, superior strategy by their enemies, or just plain bad luck, the fact remains that the jihadis are in a bit of a jam. And here, the inner logic of all messianic mass movements asserts itself: such movements can attract amazing support, as IS has for several years. But that support depends heavily on continued success, because that success reinforces the message at the heart of the jihadi enterprise: we are winning because the Almighty has blessed our efforts.
Once you start to lose, this message is less credible. Has the Almighty changed His mind?
I doubt it, but it’s certainly nice to see our would-be killers grappling with some serious problems. Who knows? They may even find a way to lose a war they are favorites to win. Stranger things have happened.