Geopolitics and the U.S. Spoiling Attack
John Mauldin's Outside the Box

Blog Subscription Form

  • Email Notifications



This week's special edition Outside the Box is what I would call one of the more "philosophical" pieces by Stratfor President George Friedman...let me explain. In his article "Geopolitics and the U.S. Spoiling Attack," George looks through the lens of history at the US involvement in Iraq by comparing the outcomes with past US military encounters. While he goes on to show the result of each situation, the most interesting part, at least to me, has been the intended or unintended consequences that have developed as a result.

For example, George hypothesizes that victory may not be or have been the optimal outcome for all of the past US military endeavors, but rather the strategy (or unintended consequence) of only using a fraction of the country's military might to disrupt an imposing enemy's agenda. This is what he calls a "spoiling attack."

George's company Stratfor provides some insightful and comprehensive research on geopolitical events and global affairs. He continues to be generous by offering my readers a discount to his normal subscription rates which can be obtained by clicking here.

My desire is that you continue to find these special editions of Outside the Box to be valuable and, at the very least, thought provoking.

John Mauldin, Editor

To The Moon Alice
In the weeks, months and years just ahead, gold, silver and other tangible assets are again going to become much more than financial obscurities tucked away on the commodities page. They're about to become front-page news.

When that happens, the prices of the metals--and of the high-quality gold and silver shares we follow on behalf of subscribers to our International Speculator--are heading for the moon.

Find out more...

Geopolitics and the U.S. Spoiling Attack

By George Friedman

The United States has now spent four years fighting in Iraq. Those who planned the conflict never expected this outcome. Indeed, it could be argued that this outcome represents not only miscalculation but also a strategic defeat for the United States. The best that can be said about the war at the moment is that it is a strategic stalemate, which is an undesired outcome for the Americans. The worst that can be said is that the United States has failed to meet its strategic objectives and that failure represents defeat.

In considering the situation, our attention is drawn to a strange paradox that has been manifest in American foreign policy since World War II. On the one hand, the United States has consistently encountered strategic stalemate or defeat in particular politico-military operations. At those times, the outcomes have appeared to be disappointing if not catastrophic. Yet, over the same period of time, U.S. global power, on the whole, has surged. In spite of stalemate and defeat during the Cold War, the United States was more in 2000 than it had been in 1950.

Consider these examples from history:
  • Korea: Having defeated the North Korean army, U.S. forces were attacked by China. The result was a bloody stalemate, followed by a partition that essentially restored the status quo ante -- thus imposing an extended stalemate.

  • Cuba: After a pro-Soviet government was created well within the security cordon of the United States, Washington used overt and covert means to destroy the Castro regime. All attempts failed, and the Castro government remains in place nearly half a century later.

  • Vietnam: the United States fought an extended war in Vietnam, designed to contain the expansion of Communism in Indochina. The United States failed to achieve its objectives -- despite massive infusions of force -- and North Vietnam established hegemony over the region.

  • Iran: The U.S. containment policy required it to have a cordon of allies around the Soviet Union. Iran was a key link, blocking Soviet access to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. expulsion from Iran following the Islamic Revolution represented a major strategic reversal.

  • Iraq: In this context, Iraq appears to represent another strategic reversal -- with U.S. ambitions at least blocked, and possibly defeated, after a major investment of effort and prestige.
Look at it this way. On a pretty arbitrary scale -- between Korea (1950-53), Cuba (1960-63), Vietnam (1963-75), Iran (1979-1981) and Iraq (2003-present) -- the United States has spent about 27 of the last 55 years engaged in politico-military maneuvers that, at the very least, did not bring obvious success, and frequently brought disaster. Yet, in spite of these disasters, the long-term tendency of American power relative to the rest of the world has been favorable to the United States. This general paradox must be explained. And in the course of explanation, some understandings of the Iraq campaign, seen in a broader context, might emerge.

Schools of Thought

There are three general explanations for this paradox:
  1. U.S. power does not rest on these politico-military involvements but derives from other factors, such as economic power. Therefore, the fact that the United States has consistently failed in major conflicts is an argument that these conflicts should not have been fought -- that they were not relevant to the emergence of American power. The U.S. preoccupation with politico-military conflict has been an exercise in the irrelevant that has slowed, but has not derailed, expansion of American power. Applying this logic, it would be argued that the Soviet Union would have collapsed anyway under its own weight -- as will the Islamic world -- and that U.S. interventions are pointless.

  2. The United States has been extraordinarily fortunate that, despite its inability to use politico-military power effectively and its being drawn consistently into stalemate or defeat, exogenous forces have saved the United States from its own weakness. In the long run, this good fortune should not be viewed as strategy, but as disaster waiting to happen.

  3. The wars mentioned previously were never as significant as they appeared to be -- public sentiment and government rhetoric notwithstanding. These conflicts drew on only a small fraction of potential U.S. power, and they always were seen as peripheral to fundamental national interests. The more important dimension of U.S. foreign policy was statecraft that shifted the burden of potential warfare from the United States to its allies. So, regardless of these examples, the core strategic issue for the United States was its alliances and ententes with states like Germany and China. Applying this logic, it follows that the wars themselves were -- practically speaking -- insignificant episodes, that stalemate and defeat were trivial and that, except for the domestic political obsession, none were of fundamental importance to the United States.
Put somewhat differently, there is the liberal view that the Soviet Union was not defeated by the United States in the Cold War, but that it collapsed itself, and the military conflicts of the Cold War were unnecessary. There is the conservative view that the United States won the Cold War in spite of a fundamental flaw in the American character -- an unwillingness to bear the burden of war -- and that this flaw ultimately will prove disastrous for the United States. Finally, there is the non-ideological, non-political view that the United States won the Cold War in spite of defeats and stalemates because these wars were never as important as either the liberals or conservatives made them out to be, however necessary they might have been seen to be at the time.

If we apply these analyses to Iraq, three schools of thought emerge. The first says that the Iraq war is unnecessary and even harmful in the context of the U.S.-jihadist confrontation -- and that, regardless of outcome, it should not be fought. The second says that the war is essential -- and that, while defeat or stalemate in this conflict perhaps would not be catastrophic to the United States, there is a possibility that it would be catastrophic. And at any rate, this argument continues, the United States' ongoing inability to impose its will in conflicts of this class ultimately will destroy it. Finally, there is the view that Iraq is simply a small piece of a bigger war and that the outcome of this particular conflict will not be decisive, although the war might be necessary. The heated rhetoric surrounding the Iraq conflict stems from the traditional American inability to hold things in perspective.

There is a reasonable case to be made for any of these three views. Any Stratfor reader knows that our sympathies gravitate toward the third view. However, that view makes no sense unless it is expanded. It must also take into consideration the view that the Soviet Union's fall was hardwired into history regardless of U.S. politico-military action, along with the notion that a consistent willingness to accept stalemate and defeat represents a significant threat to the United States in the long term.

Resource Commitments and Implications

Let's begin with something that is obviously true. When we consider Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran and even Iraq, it is clear that the United States devoted only a tiny fraction of the military power it could have brought to bear if it wished. By this, we mean that in none of these cases was there a general American mobilization, at no point was U.S. industry converted to a wartime footing, at no point were nuclear weapons used to force enemy defeat. The proportion of force brought to bear, relative to capabilities demonstrated in conflicts such as World War II, was minimal.

If there were fundamental issues at stake involving national security, the United States did not act as though that was the case. What is most remarkable about these conflicts was the extreme restraint shown -- both in committing forces and in employing available forces. The conservative critique of U.S. foreign policy revolves around the tendency of the American leadership and public to recoil at the idea of extended conflict. But this recoil is not a response to extended war. Rather, by severely limiting the force available from the outset, the United States has, unintentionally, designed its wars to be extended. From this derives the conservative view that the United States engages in warfare without intending victory.

In each of these cases, the behavior of the United States implied that there were important national security issues at stake, but measured in terms of the resources provided, these national security issues were not of the first order. The United States certainly has shown an ability to mount full-bore politico-military operations in the past: In World War II, it provided sufficient resources to invade Europe and the Japanese empire simultaneously. But in all of the cases we have cited, the United States provided limited resources -- and in some cases, only covert or political resources. Clearly, it was prepared on some level to accept stalemate and defeat.

Even in cases where the enemy was engaged fully, the United States limited its commitment of resources. In Vietnam, for example, the defeat of North Vietnam and regime change were explicitly ruled out. The United States had as its explicit goal a stalemate, in which both South and North Vietnam survived as independent states. In Korea, the United States shifted to a stalemate strategy after the Chinese intervention. So too in Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis; and in Iran, the United States accepted defeat in an apparently critical arena without attempting a major intervention. In each instance, the mark of U.S. intervention was limited exposure -- even at the cost of stalemate or defeat.

In other words, the United States consistently has entered into conflicts in which its level of commitment was extremely limited, in which either victory was not the strategic goal or the mission eventually was redefined to accept stalemate, and in which even defeat was deemed preferable to a level of effort that might avert it. Public discussion on all sides was apoplectic both during these conflicts and afterward, yet American global power was not materially affected in the long run.


Key Statistics

Discount to Fair Value: 34%
Price / Sales: 1.0
Return on Equity: 25.8%
% Below 52-Week High: -30%
If you're looking for a great bargain on one of the world's fastest-growing companies, then you need to learn more about our "Undervalued Stock of the Month" for March 2007. Due to short-term market volatility, the shares have pulled back -30% from their highs. As a result, bargin hunters now have a rare opportunity to pick up one of the world's most dominant companies at a 34% discount below our estimated fair value.

Tell me the name of this stock!

The Spoiling Attack

This appears to make no sense until we introduce a military concept into the analysis: the spoiling attack. The spoiling attack is an offensive operation; however, its goal is not to defeat the enemy but to disrupt enemy offensives -- to, in effect, prevent a defeat by the enemy. The success of the spoiling attack is not measured in term of enemy capitulation, but the degree to which it has forestalled successful enemy operations.

The concept of a spoiling attack is intimately bound up with the principle of economy of force. Military power, like all power, is finite. It must be husbanded. Even in a war in which no resources are spared, some operations do not justify a significant expenditure. Some attacks are always designed to succeed by failing. More precisely, the resources devoted to those operations are sufficient to disrupt enemy plans, to delay an enemy offensive, or to create an opportunity for political disruption of the enemy, rather than to defeat the enemy. For those tasked with carrying out the spoiling attack, it appears that they are being wasted in a hopeless effort. For those with a broader strategic or geopolitical perspective, it appears to be the proper application of the "economy of force" principle.

If we consider the examples cited above and apply the twin concepts of the spoiling attack and economy of force, then the conversion of American defeats into increased U.S. global power no longer appears quite as paradoxical. In Korea, spoiling Communist goals created breathing space elsewhere for the United States, and increased tension levels between China and Russia. A stalemate achieved outcomes as satisfactory to Washington as taking North Korea would have been. In Cuba, containing Fidel Castro was, relative to cost, as useful as destroying him. What he did in Cuba itself was less important to Washington than that he should not be an effective player in Latin America. In Vietnam, frustrating the North's strategic goals for a decade allowed the Sino-Soviet dispute to ripen, thus opening the door for Sino-U.S. entente even before the war ended. The U.S. interest in Iran, of course, rested with its utility as a buffer to the Soviets. Being ousted from Iran mattered only if the Iranians capitulated to the Soviets. Absent that, Iran's internal politics were of little interest to the
United States.

If we apply the twin concepts to Iraq, it is possible to understand the reasons behind the size of the force deployed (which, while significant, still is limited relative to the full range of options brought to bear in World War II) and the obvious willingness of the Bush administration to court military disaster. The invasion four years ago has led to the Sunnis and Shia turning against each other in direct conflict. Therefore, it could be argued that just as the United States won the Cold War by exploiting the Sino-Soviet split and allying with Mao Zedong, so too the path to defeating the jihadists is not a main attack, but a spoiling attack that turns Sunnis and Shia against each other. This was certainly not the intent of the Bush administration in planning the 2003 invasion; it has become, nevertheless, an unintended and significant outcome.

Moreover, it is far from clear whether U.S. policymakers through history have been aware of this dimension in their operations. In considering Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Iran, it is never clear that the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson/Nixon or Carter/Reagan administrations purposely set out to implement a spoiling attack. The fog of political rhetoric and the bureaucratized nature of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus make it difficult to speak of U.S. "strategy" as such. Every deputy assistant secretary of something-or-other confuses his little piece of things with the whole, and the American culture demonizes and deifies without clarifying.

However, there is a deep structure in U.S. foreign policy that becomes visible. The incongruities of stalemate and defeat on the one side and growing U.S. power on the other must be reconciled. The liberal and conservative arguments explain things only partially. But the idea that the United States rarely fights to win can be explained. It is not because of a lack of moral fiber, as conservatives would argue; nor a random and needless belligerence, as liberals would argue. Rather, it is the application of the principle of spoiling operations -- using limited resources not in order to defeat the enemy but to disrupt and confuse enemy operations.

As with the invisible hand in economics, businessmen pursue immediate ends without necessarily being aware of how they contribute to the wealth of nations. So too, politicians pursue immediate ends without necessarily being aware of how they contribute to national power. Some are clearer in their thinking than others, perhaps, or possibly all presidents are crystal-clear on what they are doing in these matters. We do not dine with the great.

But there is an underlying order to U.S. foreign policy that makes the apparent chaos of policymaking understandable and rational.


Your wondering what the next "spoiling attack" might be analyst,

John F. Mauldin


John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.

Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staffs at Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC and InvestorsInsight Publishing, Inc. (InvestorsInsight) may or may not have investments in any funds, programs or companies cited above.


Communications from InvestorsInsight are intended solely for informational purposes. Statements made by various authors, advertisers, sponsors and other contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of InvestorsInsight, and should not be construed as an endorsement by InvestorsInsight, either expressed or implied. InvestorsInsight is not responsible for typographic errors or other inaccuracies in the content. We believe the information contained herein to be accurate and reliable. However, errors may occasionally occur. Therefore, all information and materials are provided "AS IS" without any warranty of any kind. Past results are not indicative of future results.

Posted 03-29-2007 3:30 PM by John Mauldin