Belmont Club

World Views

Richard Epstein at the Hoover Institution has an interesting article on president Obama’s apparent reluctance to use certain kinds of force to defeat ISIS. “The President has been immobilized by his deep ambivalence over the use of force. Right now, his stated campaign relies on the limited use of air power largely to knock out ISIS fighters who threaten key dams and other infrastructure—which is all to the good—but he will not budge beyond that target.”


One reason for his dogged persistence lies in his flawed world view, which deep down, regards the United States (and Israel) as akin to colonial powers, whose actions should always be examined under a presumption of distrust. His ingrained uneasiness with the values of western civilization makes it impossible for him to think and act as the leader of a western nation. Instead, he much prefers to regard himself as a nonpartisan critic and a bystander to world affairs. He has no firm conviction in the rightness of his cause, and hence no confidence in his ability to get others to act as perils mount.

What makes the situation even worse is that Obama receives support from commentators and public intellectuals who think that his reluctance to commit military force should be commended as part of some grand plan to restore American hegemony by gentler means. Just that kind of thinking was evident in a recent column by Thomas Friedman, “Leading From Within,” which refuses to come to grips with the short-term peril that ISIS presents. Friedman accepts the conventional analysis that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake and ignores the current short-term military crisis in order to piece together some long-term strategic plans to make things better. One of his suggestions is that the United States remove its self-imposed limitations on the export of oil products. Of course, that proposal is correct. But it is an insufficient response to the perilous military situation today in the Middle East. It is also correct even in times of peace because free trade policies always work to the long-term advantage of our nation and the world. In good times, as well as bad, a global increase in the supply of oil will enhance prosperity at home and abroad.


Epstein’s article is thought provoking not in the least because certain themes are echoed perhaps unintentionally, by Peter Baker of the New York Times. Baker also questions Obama’s “world view”.

To Mr. Obama’s critics, the disparity between the president’s previous statements and today’s reality reflects not simply poorly chosen words but a fundamentally misguided view of the world. Rather than clearly see the persistent dangers as the United States approaches the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they said, Mr. Obama perpetually imagines a world as he wishes it were.

But too much of a focus on the president’s world view risks perpetuating the false problem between the doves and the hawks and emphasizing the bogus choice between those who are temperamentally inclined to peace and those who thirst for war.  These characterizations are beside the point.  In reality all good security decisions — even those that use war or violence as much as those which do not to attain their aims are ultimately violence minimization decisions. The object of strategy has always been to minimize the maximum possible loss.

The job of generals is always to turn in the lowest possible casualty bill for a given policy objective. The confusion over this essential point arises from the circumstance that in order to minimize total global loss, a general sometimes has to accept a very high local loss. One example of how this applied was the British tactic of volley fire in the age of musketry. The inaccuracy of early muskets meant that their discharge beyond a given distance was largely a waste of ball and powder. The Redcoats were therefore drilled to hold their fire and remain in formation until they reached a certain distance to the enemy, whereupon they would discharge their muskets simultaneously at the enemy. This had the effect of firing a gigantic shotgun at the enemy formation, and since individual aimed fire was not possible with those primitive firearms, it was the statistical effect of a titanic canister round that really counted.


To the observer, the British would seem to be led by bloodthirsty and stupid colonels.  Why else should they close in serried ranks, accepting losses as they trotted theatrically along and firing only on command? But the tallies told a different tale. British volley fire on an open field slaughtered their foes. The tactic made sense because it minimized their maximum possible loss. Of course things changed with the advent of rifled projectiles and machine guns. But in the age in which it was relevant, it turned in the lowest global casualty bills.

Returning to Epstein’s article, the relevant question is then whether the president’s “strategy” is minimax. The wisdom of a course of action depends on its estimated cost, not on some philosophical principle. The best generals lower not only the overall cost to his side, but very often the total casualty bill for everybody because it defeats the enemy quickly.  Thus, the choice of strategy should not be constrained by a world view or polling to the point where it obscures the human loss which it entails — or the lack of effectiveness which it may imply.

There is a name for prolonged, low-level loss. It is called attrition. Attrition was the strategy employed by both sides during the Great War. And attrition — as opposed to George Patton’s slashing armored thrusts — is not always good. The great thing about World War 2 is that it ended whereas current conflict has been ongoing since September 11, 2001 with no end in sight. The only thing worse than war is endless war, especially a war which nobody wins after decades of fighting. This is the kind of conflict which modern political leaders specialize in fighting: violence without ultimate effect, sacrifice without any tangible result; conflict without any milestones, guideposts or landmarks.  A war that never ends on the quarterdeck of a battleship, but only in the slow drawing of the blinds.


In the question of ISIS, the controlling idea should be the costs and benefits of various courses of action. Intelligent strategies involve minimizing maximum loss. They are not the obvious place to make statements about one’s world view. Epstein ends by saying:

So it is back to the military and diplomatic options. At this point, it is quite clear that the greatest obstacle to getting things done overseas is the allergic reaction domestically to foreign entanglements, given our mixed record of failed ventures. Indeed it is just on this point that presidential leadership is so critical. It is instructive that even Friedman’s co-columnist at the Times, Maureen Dowd, rightly frets that an embattled Obama, convinced of his “Solomonic wisdom and Spocky calm” will continue to wallow in self-pity—thinking of himself as the helpless prisoner of events—rather than make a decision about what to do. In this time of peril, we need a President with courage to put aside the political and ask this one question: what mix of American force and diplomacy can bring a halt to the growing disintegration of world order.

Do the right and winning thing or don’t get into it at all.

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