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May 10, 2003

Asymmetric Politics

by Joseph Stromberg
In 1967, as the War in Vietnam dragged on and on, Carl Oglesby, then President of Students for a Democratic Society, commented on how the Right Wing saw that war. Most of the Right, he noted, "accepts the political description" of the war and, therefore, "wants it the war to be more fiercely waged."(1) In this, Oglesby thought they were quite mistaken.

These days, we are burdened with coming to grips with the titanic struggle currently offered us by our ineffable leaders. We face many of the same problems we faced thirty some years ago. I think we may start by rejecting the "political description" of the crusade, war, or series of wars, which the shadowy and hermetically sealed Neo-Cons are offering us – provided always, that there are Neo-Cons, a fact which the Neo-Cons have lately taken to denying.

Now I am not suggesting that we reject the political description in order to reject the associated project or projects. We should weigh them on their merits to find whether or not they are lighter than a duck, are made of wood, and are therefore – a witch! Having done all that, I do reject them.

I will not justify this rejection here and now, since there is already plenty of writing on this website – and in many other places – that does exactly that, and because I would like to look at another matter.


Invoking the historian\'s natural right to go back into the past, I call upon an article written by Andrew Mack in 1975, which delves into the special burdens resting on those who insist on waging "asymmetric wars."(2) The last two words have become the buzzword of choice for current commentators and theorists of Machtpolitik. This makes the essay just mentioned a sort of portent.

In a classic imperial war, a great power suppressed native levies in some place far away from its home society. As long as the enemy showed up, fought traditionally, and died bravely in large numbers, everything was fine. Civilization prevailed without undue attention or stress at home. Indeed, the public approved of such triumphs over the foreign wogs.

Given the gross "asymmetry" in power, no other results could be expected.

This is the sort of war about which numerous Neo-Cons can wax quite nostalgic. Unfortunately for those who would build and maintain empires, weak opponents eventually changed their tactics. Mack writes that the Boer War and the Irish independence struggle, on either side of World War I, mark the point at which asymmetric war became difficult for the metropolitan powers.

Weak opponents increasingly decided to "refuse to confront the enemy on his own terms" and resorted to irregular (guerrilla) warfare. This new situation raised the costs for imperial invaders across the board – in money, casualties, and finally, politically.(3) This was what the United States had been facing in Vietnam.

The longer such a war went on, the higher the costs politically, even though "none of the conflicts" saw "more than a fraction of the total potential military resources of the metropolitan power" put into use. It was not thought necessary to mobilize massively; yet – at any level of activity – domestic political costs grew over time.

Of the Algerian War, Mack writes: "The major cause of opposition lay not in the enormous costs of the war to the Algerians (though this was a factor), but in the greater costs of the war to the French themselves. The progressively greater human, economic, and political costs gave rise to the phenomenon of \'war weariness\' which many writers have described without analyzing, and to the \'loss of political will\' of the government to which the military invariably ascribed the defeat."(4)

So far, none of this is news, but what is interesting is the "value-free" political analysis that arises from such situations.


Their troubles in Algeria led French counter-insurgency theorists(5) to conclude that, if metropolitan political opinion was the rebels\' main advantage, the obvious solution was to control political discussion in the home country. As formulated by Roger Trinquier, this meant that, "in order to prevent the rot of \'defeatism\' or \'lack of political will\' from betraying the troops in the field, the entire structure of the metropolitan society must be altered."(6) Lately, the Neo-Con field marshals and the hosts of the bewildered "Meso-Cons" (as I call them) have been telling us that the Old Right assertion that empire abroad leads to loss of liberty at home, is just an antique superstition.

Yet, French theorists – of the kind that our leaders could embrace – made precisely the same point, the only difference being, that they favored the loss of liberty at home. You have to wonder who has been reading those fellows. Of course, the United States, too, produced a good many such thinkers during the long post-constitutional delirium of the Cold War. You could well imagine that the legal tinkering undertaken by the current administration – Patriot Act I, the much-awaited Patriot Acts II, III, IV, …. CCLIX – fall under the larger logic of empire.

If you assume that you must have empire, you will conclude that you must have occasional wars to keep it. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of their successful prosecution. On these assumptions, 18th-century grocery lists with vague allusions to natural rights must somehow be shelved – forever.

The logic seems pretty ironclad. To sustain empire, "reform" the home country. This is all very sane and logical – on imperial premises.

I think a good rule of thumb is that, when someone is said to be a "tough-minded" thinker, he is after your land, your wallet, or your life, and you should seek advice elsewhere. Right now, the tough-minded are all around us, chanting the refrain that we must give up liberties "temporarily." In the next breath, they exhort us that the struggle could go on for decades. It is a fair conclusion, then, that they wish to take away liberties for decades.

In this, they are assisted by some inherited legalisms, according to which our Constitution goes into suspended animation "during a war," or alternatively, that an unfathomably great reservoir of magical "war powers" descend, dovelike, upon the shoulders of the godlike President, or possibly the President-in-Congress, the instant a war is found. A cynic would say that, if the Constitution goes missing and bottomless powers land upon the rulers at the first sign of a war, then rulers who wished to enjoy more power would tend to go around actively finding wars to be in.

Who could be so cynical as to believe that? In a decade or two, we shall surely have more evidence. We can draw conclusions then.

Ignore that handwriting on the wall. It may not mean a thing. Still, giving extraordinary powers to those who find wars – and who have clever post-constitutional ways to find them in the first place – might conceivably create one of those moral hazards about which we hear so much.

To pursue this further would involve in various considerations of sovereignty, "war powers," and the like, which are best left for later treatment.


1. Carl Oglesby and Robert Shaull, Containment and Change (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 36-37.

2. Andrew Mack, "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict," World Politics, 27, 2 (January 1975), pp. 175-200.

3. Ibid., pp. 176-177.

4. Ibid., pp. 179-181.

5. See Raoul Girardet, "Civil and Military Power in the Fourth Republic," in Samuel P. Huntington, ed., Changing Patterns of Military Politics (Free Press of Glencoe, 1962), pp. 121-149.

6. Mack, p. 189 (my italics).

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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