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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Monday | April 14, 2003

The Peculiar Logic of Peace Through Strength

The WMD pretext may fade away, the 9/11 pretext may yet become a laughing stock, the Freedom pretext may go down with New Iraq's foundering ship of state. [Street-level hawks are already bitching about what a pathetic bunch of rabble we liberated.] When every other casus belli has turned to jelly, we'll still have the bedrock pretext of "Peace Through Strength".

PTS has an intuitive appeal, partly due to its apparent simplicity. Even the tiniest budding day care terror can grasp the essence of PTS ... I'll beat up X, just to show I can, so Y and Z will leave me alone.

The core idea is to avoid combat -- especially attack -- by engaging in combat ... selectively and decisively. Alas and alack, PTS is a damnably difficult meta-strategy.

PTS requires actual strength, so it's not even an option for most players. Unlike some alternative meta-strategies, PTS falls apart the first time you pick a fight and get embarrassed ... and in PTS, even a stand-off is an embarrassment.

And PTS strength can't be just ordinary strength. You can't afford to fight where you hold only a thin or uncertain a priori advantage, because sooner of later you will get embarrassed. You must win decisively, time after time. [You can attempt PTS within a closed universe of opponents, but that raises the greater complexity of managing closure.]

And PTS strength can't be just temporary strength (which is the ordinary kind), because you'll develop a backlog of latent enemies.

PTS demands the will to exercise and deplete strength in otherwise-unnecessary combat. At the close of any demonstrative episode, your actual strength is depleted (even as your reputational advantage may be enhanced). Fight too often, and you will lose ... even if you started with all the requisite advantages. Each fight picked must result in more than one fight deterred.

PTS requires selective, sequenced engagement. Even the biggest dog in the yard can't take on everybody at once. You must be able to begin combat -- and more importantly, end combat -- at a times of your choosing.

PTS requires picking the right fights -- for maximum stagecraft and minimum real cost, with no surprise endings. This aspect is prone to miscalculation, even if the other requisites are covered.

PTS requires clean wins and clean exits. You can't leave a tail of major resources committed or constrained for extended periods, and you have to be able to turn your back on those you've beaten..

PTS requires relative mastery of diplomatic code. Most of the time you want the challenged adversary to defer or appease, but if you garble your signals he may fight anyway. Some of the time, you don't want the challenged adversary to defer (because you booked the fight for demonstration purposes) ... and those "false ultimatum" signals can get even more complicated.

PTS demands humility and forbearance, at least in posture. You (usually) don't want to egg a challenged adversary into fighting for pride.

PTS demands a mix of unpredictability (nurturing simultaneous strategic uncertainty in multiple opposing camps) and credibility (rarely enhanced by acting impulsively, irrationally or implacably). Again, it's easy to miscalculate or miscommunicate the mix.

PTS demands internal single-mindedness (either a high level of domestic unity, or top-down authoritarianism), because -- for higher-level strategic effect -- you are going to do things that don't make sense on their own merits.

Finally and fundamentally, the PTS player must be content with Peace, i.e., deflecting individual security challenges. Go beyond Peace, start taking too much of other peoples' Stuff, and PTS is over. Strategic uncertainty dissolves ... other players will realize they have to fight sooner or later anyway ... they start acting as coalitions, not individuals ... they stop letting you control the timing ... and you've converted a rare and enviablea set of advantages into a posture of precarious disadvantage.

RonK, Seattle

Posted April 14, 2003 02:26 PM | Comments (59)


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