Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Empires and Anthills

Also at DKos.

I've been saying for some time that America's military superiority has become an increasingly ineffective tool of national power. Now, it appears that a pair of political scientists has accumulated sufficient data to back that assertion. Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post reports on studies conducted by Jason Lyall at Princeton University and Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah Wilson III at the U.S. Military Academy in an excellent article titled "Don't Send a Lion to Catch a Mouse." (A colleague informs me that Colonel Wilson served with David Petraeus, who is currently the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and who supervised the Army's new field manual on counter insurgency operations.)

According to Vedantam, the studies show that…
Although great powers are vastly more powerful today than in the 19th century, the analysis showed they have become far less likely to win asymmetrical wars. More surprising, the analysis showed that the odds of a powerful nation winning an asymmetrical war decrease as that nation becomes more powerful.

Asymmetrical Warfare

"Asymmetrical warfare" is a term often both misused and abused. Historically, opposing forces in armed conflicts have seldom been identical in terms of size or capability. The Peloponnesian War of the 4th century (B.C.) pitted a maritime power (Athens) against a land power (Sparta). The 20th century Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had a similar aspect, the U.S. being the maritime power and the Soviets being the land power.

But over time, "asymmetrical warfare" has come to describe armed conflicts between greater and lesser powers, and as the research by Lyall and Wilson points out, the record shows that the greater powers haven't fared well in this type of warfare.

Lyall and Wilson studied 250 asymmetrical wars, starting with Napoleon's Peninsular War with Spain (1808-1814). Success rates for great powers in these types of wars went from 85 percent from 1800 to 1850, but dropped to 21 percent between 1950 and 2003.

Reportedly, General David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, gives the "surge" strategy a 25 percent chance of succeeding.

In an article titled "Wars and Empires," I wrote that almost without exception, empires that ended badly failed to understand that the military power that established them was not, in itself, sufficient to sustain them. Today, America spends as much as the rest of the world combined on defense, yet our military languishes in seemingly hopeless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan against adversaries whose technology and logistics are vastly inferior.

It may be that Petraeus can beat his own odds and salvage something from the Iraq situation. I sincerely hope so. But even if he does, we have already revealed our Achilles heel: our primary instrument of power has proven ineffective at defending our shores and borders, achieving our aims overseas, and decisively winning the kinds of wars it fights.

Whether you step on an anthill with a sandal or roll over it with a tank, the result is pretty much the same. You still have a colony of ants.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.


  1. yeah, i saw that, too. makes a lot of sense.

    what good does it really do us or anybody else to be able to project all that power all over the world?

    we can't even keep our own house in order.

  2. I don't see where it does us much good at all.

    It depends a lot on who's running the show, and you know who that is now.

  3. "Don't Send a Lion to Catch a Mouse." Surely General Burgoyne would agree!

  4. I posted on the same article and one of my commenters injected the thought that the reason it is becoming more difficult for the superior force to effectively defeat the smaller is that we are losing our tolerance for mass slaughter which is what it usually takes in these situations. News from the battlefield including such slaughter reaches home ever more quickly and the folks back home just aren't prepared to accept what it takes to 'win' one of these strategic mistakes.

  5. Sky-Ho9:36 PM

    * gives the "surge" strategy a 25 percent chance of succeeding*

    Anyone happen to catch what General Petraeus considers, um, "success"? conditions as they were pre-invasion?

  6. How far are we from "declare victory and go home*"?

    Let's see, election 2008... 18 months or so. We'll see joyous homecoming parade/photo ops around 9/11/08.

    *go home for some -- but an awful lot will have to stay to staff our 'enduring bases' and the enormous embassy

  7. Thanks (again) to everyone for the great discussion.

    Monk, I think what you said is partly true. The other part is that wholesale slaughter doesn't really accomplish he political goals of a superpower, especially a sole superpower.