Do We Need American Political Warfare in the Middle East?

August 9, 2013

Max Boot and Michael Doran  have posted an essay at the Council for Foreign Relations calling for the United States to reinvigorate a campaign of  political warfare to counter anti-American influences in the Middle East.  Among the challengers they list “Iran, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various Salafist organizations.”

They explicitly cite the inspiration of the early Cold War in the approach and quote from one of George Kennan’s PPS memos from 1948

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP—the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

They complain that none of America’s foreign affairs agencies has political warfare as a core mission with the result that (to use two of their examples) if an Iraqi politician or an anti-regime Iranian film-maker wants support who will provide it.  Boot and Doran argue for using the existing Counter Terrorism Strategic Communication set up as a basis for a cross-government coordinated programme, further State, DoD, USAID and CIA should create political warfare career tracks.

Given that America’s various public diplomacy strands tend to take on an unacknowledged tinge of political warfare it’s nice to see the issue being explicitly addressed.  In principle the ability to coordinate all the instruments of national power in pursuit of a ‘national goals’ is a good thing.

But I’m not entirely convinced

At the end of their first paragraph Boot and Doran call for the US to develop a political warfare strategy but their entire piece is about the instruments and methods of political warfare.

This leads to the central question: what is the political strategy and how does it fit with US objectives and policies in the Middle East and globally?

As an approach to statecraft political warfare inverts Clausewitz and treats politics as the continuation of war in that the other is to be defeated or destroyed.  Indeed the most enthusiastic embrace of political warfare has been from regimes that deny the legitimacy of their opponents (for instance the USSR facing the capitalist world) or see themselves dealing with an existential threat that requires the use of any and all means, the situation that Kennan saw in 1948.   The reason that Clausewitz subordinates strategy to policy is because policy is the level at which different objectives and political considerations are integrated, balanced and ranked.  The problem with political warfare is that it tends to pretend that this political complexity can be ignored and that it is possible to simply focus on damaging the opponent.

In contrast diplomacy seeks to manage the relationship with the other and to balance multiple objectives and relationships.  The historical record shows that the targets of peacetime political warfare tend not to collapse and that the country employing PW finds itself  managing the interaction between the two approaches to statecraft with greater or lesser degrees of success.   Fans of political warfare methods (the USSR or Hitler) frequently found their diplomacy torpedoed because their unconventional methods hadn’t managed to overthrow the opponent merely to irritate them.

Hence the number one requirement for political warfare is a political strategy that allows not just the coordination of means but the prioritization of objectives.  So in thinking about a political warfare strategy for the Middle East the US needs to consider what sort of Middle East it would like to see (and what sort of region it can actually produce), and how the methods and consequences of PW (intended and unintended) will feed into outcomes given the reaction of other players.  Just developing a strategy based on countering hostile forces isn’t sufficient.  For instance Boot and Doran’s list of threats suggests an elementary set of political strategies (Sun Tzu 101): promote conflict between extremist Shia and Sunni factions (and provide covert help to both sides) – while this would weaken anti-US factions and distract them it would also escalate the level of violence and instability in the region.

A few lessons from Cold War experience.

  1. One of the basic strategies of US Cold War political warfare was to support anti-communist socialists, what was known as the non-communist left (NCL). This was not to the taste of many congressmen.  If we are looking at the Middle East who is your NCL?  Who can you back that can actually make a difference and is acceptable to congressional oversight?
  2. There are many examples of Cold War groups taking the money and following their own agenda. Just because a politician says that he’s pro-American don’t expect him to follow your agenda.
  3. By the second half of the 1950s it was already clear that covert support for anti-communist groups was a trap in that the support could not be kept hidden indefinitely and that when it came out it would have consequence both for the US and the groups that they had supported. Discussions of some sort of overt funding mechanism that would eventually yield the NED have quite a long history.
  4. One of the basic criticisms of covert methods of statecraft is that they often function as a substitute for policy resulting in a series of opportunistic improvisations that do not lead anywhere in particular.


I would argue that Boot and Doran are right that the US should look hard at coordinating its tools, looking at ways in which it can undermine and block threatening forces.  I would also look at the ability to use covert methods to support friendly forces in particular circumstances (this is a job for the CIA).

But…I’m sceptical about a broad PW push in the absence of a broader political strategy for the region, I don’t just mean some general aspirations but a theory of change that will get you there  – Kennan’s advocacy of PW was in the context of a strategy of containment in a bipolar international order,  the Middle East is a much messier environment.  I’m not convinced that the US can formulate or execute a coordinated programme of political warfare in support of a coherent political strategy.


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