On War #247: Crossing the Channel

By William S. Lind

For centuries, Continental wars that included Great Britain tended to follow a pattern. The British would send an army to the Continent; it would be defeated by the French or Germans; the British would withdraw to their island; and their triumphant European enemy would draw up a superior force on the French or Dutch Channel coast. There was little doubt about the outcome, should that army land in Britain. But it could never get across the English Channel.

A recent conversation over dinner with a Marine lieutenant colonel, formerly a battalion commander in Iraq, helped clarify the nature of our “crossing the Channel” challenge in Fourth Generation war. With a combination of good counter-insurgency tactics (tactics that de-escalate confrontations), a strategy of protecting the population and some luck in the form of blunders by our 4GW opponents, we may be able to restore some degree of order in places where the state has disintegrated. We may further be able to take advantage of the restoration of order to get things working again on the local level: open the schools, turn the power back on, create some jobs, see local commerce revive.

What we do not know how to do, either in theory or in practice, is move from these local achievements to seeing the re-creation of a state. Yet in 4GW, that is crossing the Channel, because unless we can do that we cannot win the war.

As I have said before, the restoration of some degree of local security, such as we now see in parts of Iraq, does not in itself mean we are winning. Restoring local security is necessary to win, but not sufficient. The valid measure of victory is whether or not a state arises anew out of statelessness. If it does, the non-state elements who define 4GW lose, regardless of the nature of that state. If it does not, we lose and they win. That’s the bottom line.

At present, the best we can do toward seeing a state resurrect itself is try to build some connectivity between areas where relative order has been restored and hope for the best. A previous On War column written by the Fourth Generation Seminar gave some examples of how we might do that.

But this is substituting hope for operational art. It is the equivalent to the French or Germans sitting with their army on the Channel coast, hoping that a lucky wind or a chance conjunction of fleets or the intervention of the Archangel Michael might let them get across. The precedent is not encouraging.

The worst we can do is what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, namely set up a puppet government under heavy American protection and pretend that it is a state. Such pretense fools no one, not even ourselves, as our deals with local sheiks in Iraq demonstrate.

Theory tells us what we cannot do, namely establish legitimate state institutions in occupied foreign countries whose cultures and traditions are very different from our own. Unfortunately, theory has no answer to the question of what we can do, beyond hope. As the old saying goes, hope makes a good breakfast but a poor supper.

The problem of crossing the Channel in 4GW is actually more difficult than it was for those French and German armies encamped on the Channel coast, hoping. They knew perfectly well how to cross the English Channel: in boats. They just could not do it in the face of the Royal Navy. As one admiral told the British cabinet during the French invasion scare of 1805, “I do not say the French cannot come. I only say they cannot come by sea.”

We have the boats and we have the superior fleet, in the form of complete material supremacy over our 4GW opponents. What we do not have is an understanding of how to employ that superiority to regenerate a state out of statelessness. Until theory can give us such an understanding – and it may find the problem insoluble – we, like yet another attempt to invade England, the Spanish Armada, will sail in expectation of a miracle.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
717 Second St., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
Direct line: 202-543-8796

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Filed in Uncategorized | 10 responses so far

10 Responses to “On War #247: Crossing the Channel”

  1. rogelio007on 23 Jan 2008 at 8:01 pm 1

    The worst-case scenario: The Shia south will become a satellite of
    Iran. The Kurdish north will become independent and be at war with
    Turkey. The Sunni west will become an Al Qaeda caliphate. So states
    can re-emrge in what was once Iraq, they just might not be the states
    we want.

  2. rashbaughon 23 Jan 2008 at 11:46 pm 2

    What about the alternative of no state? More and more local communities that are functioning peaceably?

  3. rogelio007on 24 Jan 2008 at 12:45 am 3

    “What about the alternative of no state?”

    Then the peaceably functioning local communities would have no protection
    against outside predators, i.e. the neighbors, after President Clinton
    or President Obama removes the bulk of United States armed forces by the
    summer of 2010.

  4. Fabius Maximuson 24 Jan 2008 at 2:29 am 4

    “With a combination of good counter-insurgency tactics (tactics that de-escalate confrontations), a strategy of protecting the population and some luck in the form of blunders by our 4GW opponents, we may be able to restore some degree of order in places where the state has disintegrated.”

    Can we take responsibility for this? Or was our contribution secondary to that of local elites who established working community functions after the collapse of the central Iraq government?

  5. dckinderon 24 Jan 2008 at 6:06 am 5

    “What about the alternative of no state? More and more local communities that are functioning peaceably?”

    Indeed, given globalization and related phenomena, how can the state continue to function – military aspirations to the contrary notwithstanding.

    As somebody writing to the editor of the NYT pointed out, any spending resulting from the current proposed stimulus would be as apt to benefit foreign companies as it would be to benefit domestic firms. And much depends upon whether the European central bank should follow the Fed in lowering rates.

    I am not here to debate the merits of this economic policy or that. Rather, I am here to point out that the traditional tools of both fiscal and monetary economic policy seem increasingly feeble.

    And this is for our massive, continent-wide economy. So the economic tools of lesser states would be feebler still.

    Absent economic power, any state would become a fiction. And so would such military power as had been associated with it.

  6. hiyouallitsmeon 24 Jan 2008 at 8:12 am 6

    Winston Churchill once mumbled something like “the Americans will do the right thing, but only after they have tried everything else.” After five years of trying everything, it’s at least time to do something else, and that’s not more of the same – even if you call it a surge.

    Like Humpty Dumpty, which was really was the name of a big cannon that fell from it’s tower, this state without natural/historic borders is not going to be put together again the way it was. Both the European and the Persian sides of the Ottoman Empire are Balkanized with state bits which act like tribes.

    These ethnic groups have many more parts than the three noted by rogelio007 above. This conflict may have, at least, four phases; the first two phases have been completed: 1. Ethnic groups joint to form political parties and militias, 2. Militias clear mixed neighborhoods, 3. Militias join with other militias to control larger warlord areas. 4. Nearby States will fund their ethnic warlords. 5. The US and Russia, with possibly China and India, will become even more entangled supporting their States – this is the phase that must be stopped.

    Because of the way we are fighting them over there, which is training and motivating them, this conflict will produce blowbacks in the West proportional to its duration and the destruction of societies over there – if the young are only educated in war, then that is what each generation so training will do.

    It’s a “mission accomplished” if the Balkanized are too small to develop weapons of mass destruction. Bismarck responded to a question of what would he do if the British army were to invade Prussia by saying that he “would call the police and have them arrested”. Our oceanic channels provide some tactical defenses, if only we could become more strategically wiser regarding the size and nature of the threat. They are not defeating us; it’s our response which is harming us military, politically and economically — Sun Tzu noted the harm of any prolonged war.

  7. graycapon 24 Jan 2008 at 11:19 am 7

    The US should look carefully at the Syrian experience in Lebanon after Taef.

    A sort of super controller with the role to guarantee each stakeholder that no side will be able to overcome the others. The Syrians too changed alliances each a partner became too strong or difficult to control. Then came the cedars revolution with western support…

    This role should be administrated through intelligent use of soft and hard power and an open channel with Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. This role under the banner to fight Al-Qaeda, a simple narrative, and a never ending story, that is acceptable from each side.

    In my opinion this is the only possible outcome. If this outcome is worth its cost I’m not able to judge. Maybe, if the US and the West could use this time to conceive a grand strategy and a technological “surge” (see Fabius’s blog about this) to exit from oil dependence, this temporary solution could have some reason.

  8. neutralismoon 26 Jan 2008 at 2:09 pm 8

    Let’s turn this around. We have our own channel, actually two oceans. Keep in mind, OBL did not attack us with a carrier fleet. It was guys who had overstayed visas that did not have to be given out in the first place.

    Why not just withdraw. 911 was essentially an immigration screwup. Our Islamic friends constute what Greg Cochran calls the “Mideast powder thimble.” Without us, they will likely kill each other. If they build peaceful states, that would be lovely, but not our problem. Even the Pak nukes are more India’s problem than ours.

    Secure the borders, bring the troops home.


  9. mycophagiston 31 Jan 2008 at 12:49 am 9

    I completely agree with neutralismo. If the ONLY question was the existance of a State, then why did we get rid of Saddam in the first place?

    Well, no point in beating that Very dead horse…

    But re-reading the above, one has to wonder? One does indeed have to use the Humpty Dumpty metaphor. Putting this dumpty back together again is not something a foreign occupier is going to do – And if there was even a chance that it could be done, it would take a heck of a lot more troops than we have now.

    It is indeed time to recognise that fulfilling our responsibility does not mean staying there to make things worse. Our very presense obfuscates the probelms, dare I say, magnifies the problems?

    And forget Al Qaeda. They never were a threat to occupy Iraq, and by the very nature of things, could Never be a threat to occupy Iraq. It’s not just a red herring, it’s the whole herring fleet… :)

    Offer them billions of aid money, our expertise (minus Haliberton) and leave. It will be far cheaper and even more humane to pull out while we can do so with a fig leaf of dignity.


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