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September 24, 2005

Important Distinctions


by William S. Lind

Georgie Ann Geyer, who may be America's most perceptive international affairs columnist, wrote in the Saturday, September 17 Washington Times about a recent Washington conference concerning the mess in the Middle East. That could, of course, have been a conference topic back as far as the First Triumvirate, when an earlier Crassus lost his head in the Land Between the Rivers. We can only hope we are not as close to the loss of the republic itself as Rome was by that time.

In her column, Miss Geyer quoted at length the remarks of former Ambassador Charles W. Freeman, Jr., who represented the United States in Riyadh during the First Gulf War.

"The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq cost my country thousands of lives, eroded the American military and destroyed the Iraqi state . . . It has generated at least three different insurgencies and, by some estimates, multiplied our enemies 10 times. Look at the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan -- Iraq is becoming the cause of the very problems it was supposed to control . . ."

Moreover, he said, we have gotten mired down in Iraq in "fourth-generation warfare," simply warfare between wildly asymmetric forces, such as the formal and structured American military against the footloose insurgents or guerrillas. "What fourth-generation warfare has as its dominant character is its objective being to influence the mind of the leader, i.e. the U.S., and to convince the leader that his objectives are unattainable by at least reasonable amounts of force," he continued. "This kind of warfare is one that we've never won."

Ambassador Freeman is correct in his description of the consequences of America's invasion of Iraq. It is America's Syracuse Expedition. Just as Sparta was happy to see Athens waste its strength against a meaningless opponent, Syracuse, so al-Qaeda regards our war in Iraq as a gift from Allah. Far from wanting to drive us out of Iraq (or Afghanistan), it prays we stay in both places indefinitely, our military bleeding from the death of one thousand cuts.

But in his remarks on Fourth Generation war, the ambassador seems to have fallen into two common misconceptions. Fourth Generation war is asymmetrical, but it is asymmetrical on a much broader scale than simply the pitting of a conventional army against guerrillas. The larger asymmetry is political. Fourth Generation war pits a state, or alliance of states, against a shifting mass of opponents of wildly varying motives and goals. Among the problems that presents is that the state has no one to talk to about making peace. Who does Mr. Kissinger sit down with in Paris this time?

Nor does Fourth Generation war have as its objective the mind of the leader on the other side. Rather, what it does is pull its enemy apart on the moral level, fracturing his society. We see that clearly today in Israel, where the fractures may soon reach the point where the political process cannot bridge them.

That in turn is a warning for the U.S., and it is one both Ambassador Freeman and Georgie Anne Geyer pick up on:

Then Ambassador Freeman . . . came to the core of the problem. The "party adversary system" in America has broken down. "Patriotism" is confused with accepting whatever policy the government lays down. There is no national discussion on the war at all. More telling was the lack of debate even in Congress over the war: "This is not," he averred strongly, "just a political problem; it is a systemic breakdown in America."

That is just what Fourth Generation opponents strive for, a systemic breakdown in their state adversary. The danger sign in America is not a hot national debate over the war in Iraq and its course, but precisely the absence of such a debate – which, as former Senator Gary Hart has pointed out, is largely due to a lack of courage on the part of the Democrats. Far from ensuring a united nation, what such a lack of debate and absence of alternatives makes probable is a bitter fracturing of the American body politic once the loss of the war becomes evident to the public. The public will feel itself betrayed, not merely by one political party, but by the whole political system.

The primum mobile of Fourth Generation war is a crisis of legitimacy of the state. If the absence of a loyal opposition and alternative courses of action further delegitimizes the American state in the eye of the public, the forces of the Fourth Generation will have won a victory of far greater proportions than anything that could happen on the ground in Iraq. The Soviet Union's defeat in Afghanistan played a central role in the collapse of the Soviet state. Could the American defeat in Iraq have similar consequences here? The chance is far greater than Washington elites can imagine.


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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