Gaza and Afghanistan: A Grand Strategic Perspective
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
When one is overwhelmed by the current details of world affairs on the ground, it sometimes is good to fly up above the clouds for a different perspective. This is one of the functions of what the British called “grand strategy.”
There are various theories of grand strategy. One might be called “power from the periphery.” Sea-powers, like Great Britain and America, based on islands, America being a rather large island, tend to view superior power as something that one can project from the world’s oceans onto the large landmasses, like Asia and Africa. This has been the governing paradigm of Anglo-American colonialism and at one time of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and even Italy.
Another theory might be called the Power of Isthmus, which can refer to control of a strip of land between two large landmasses, like Panama between North and South America or the Suez between Africa and Asia, or to a strip of water between such landmasses, such as the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia or the Gulf between Southwest Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.
Still another paradigm or framework of thought in grand strategy is the power of the center of a landmass, which is the opposite of power from the periphery.
Gaza, which is the most acute center of conflict in the world today, might fit all three theories. One might argue that Gaza is on the periphery of Asia and that Israel is an outpost of American and British colonialism powered from outside, just as the Byzantine Empire was an outpost of Christianity in this same region and doomed to failure. It is easy to fashion facts to theories and thereby create new “facts.”
Gaza could also be seen as part of an isthmus at the center of the Old World at the crossroads of civilizations, which indeed the Holy Land was for millennia. During most of recorded history, the Holy Land served as bridge for cross-civilizational enrichment. Occasionally it served as the focus of conflict between rival empires, as it does today.
Or Gaza could be seen as the center of the entire Eurasian-African landmass once known as the Old World before America was “discovered” by human beings who did not live on the huge island of America. In this case, America would be the outsider that had been discovered and then returned to claim the rest of the world.
So what do Gaza and Afghanistan have in common from the perspective of such geopolitical theories of grand strategy? If Gaza can be viewed, according to the first theory, almost symbolically as the center of the world’s largest landmass, Afghanistan is its most classic example. In each case, America would represent the strategy of power from the periphery. This poses a geopolitical clash of power. According to the third theory, America and its closest allies, including Britain and Israel, are bound to lose in the end.
This possibility was raised by a briefing on January 9th by one of the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced experts on the Middle East and Afghanistan to some diplomats and U.S. general officers from the Navy, Army, and Air Force. In a brilliant talk, entitled “Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan,” this expert detailed why Iraq may turn out to have been merely a dry-run for a much more difficult challenge in Central Asia. He developed in great detail a dozen ways in which Afghanistan is an incomparably more difficult challenge to American policy than Iraq ever was.
Despite his perhaps unparalleled expertise, he made one grievous and perhaps fatal error. His major conclusion was that we should consider Al Qa’ida and the Taliban as a single enemy and treat them accordingly, even though they are distinct from each other and, in my opinion, are each other’s natural enemies.
The only conclusion that would seem logical from his briefing is that his sole option for “victory” is precisely the worst option imaginable. Since Afghanistan is larger in area than Iraq and has a larger population and problems of every kind worse than in Iraq, the question should arise whether U.S. policymakers and allies can afford to make the Taliban their irreconcilable enemy.
We might ask whether the Pakistanis could possibly agree with American policy, since the Taliban already are the major force in natural-gas-rich Baluchistan, just to the south of Afghanistan, and are a major and rapidly growing force even in Pakistan’s huge Pushtun area, which constitutes the eastern have of Pushtunistan, just as most of Afghanistan constitutes its western half. This question was not addressed because it did not fit in with the rest of the briefing.
Another issue in grand strategy dismissed as irrelevant is whether it makes sense either to split or combine organic or natural nations into artificial states that lack a common sense of history, common interests in the present, and common hopes for the future. Was it wise to pursue a new world order of illusory stability by trying to split Vietnam, Korea, and Germany, or to combine ancient peoples into the artificial states of necessarily centralized domination in Iraq, Sudan, Burma, and Nigeria?
Still another neglected grand strategy, based on the guiding principles of classical Islamic jurisprudence is closing the wealth gap within and among countries by recognizing a universal human responsibility and right individually to own the means of production through new institutions of money and credit designed to multiply real assets rather than worthless and interest-burdened debt, as well as to broaden capital ownership, for example, by de-monopolizing oil ownership in Iraq so that every Shi’a, Kurd, and Sunni would own equal shares of inalienable, voting stock in its major natural resource. Such a two-pronged strategy could lead to a stable new world order based on a just third way as the exact opposite of the present precarious one based on a choice between the failed strategies of either socialism and capitalism, which cannot possibly last more than another century or two.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no place on earth where the grand strategy of group rights, as proposed by Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, or the grand strategy of broadened capital ownership, as first proposed in the mid-20th century by Grand Mufti Ibn Ashur of Tunisia and by Louis Kelso and Norman Kurland, are taken seriously. The reason for this lack of grand strategic thinking is that truly creative thought designed for the 21st century conflicts with the utopia of imposing a New World Order through unilateral preemption under the cover of freedom and democracy but at the expense of all the underlying human values rooted in transcendent justice.
One member of the small audience dared to ask why we should even be interested in Afghanistan. The only answer, an immediate one, was “9/11”. Next question.
This superficial answer would have shocked all the grand strategists from Sun Tsu a few thousand years ago to Ibn Khaldun at the time of the Mongol Conquest and Klausewitz in the modern era. It would also have shocked the great strategists of the British Empire a hundred years ago, who argued heatedly on the basis of the three geopolitical theories of the periphery, isthmus, and center. And it would have shocked me and the other three co-founding principals, Admiral Arleigh Burke, Dave Abshire, and Dick Allen, on September 4th, 1962, when we laid the ground rules for the new Center for Strategic and International Studies, then more properly known simply as the Center for Strategic Studies, whereby all human activities are strategic.
No-one at the briefing on January 9th, 2009, seemed to be aware of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory that whoever controls the center of a continent shapes its entire future. This has been a basis of British, Russian, and Chinese global strategy for centuries. John MacKinder co-founded the London School of Economics in the 1890s and headed it for several years a decade later leading up to the First World War. He warned against Russian Bolshevism and later of Chinese Communism as major powers in Asia extending outward to its peripheries, and was prescient in expecting the rebirth of Persia as a power.
This is all very relevant to American ambitions in Afghanistan and perhaps even in Gaza today. In 1947, Owen Lattimore wrote a book, Pivot of Asia, which applied the Mackinder theory to Afghanistan about the time that Mackinder died in March 1947. I practically memorized Lattimore’s book that March on board a ship to China, where I planned to explore Outer Mongolia (the Red Army took it over at that very time and halted this adventure). Lattimore was attacked as a Communist by Senator McCarthy three years later for warning that America’s future in East Asia would suffer the same defeat that the Byzantine Empire did in West Asia a few centuries earlier.
When I spent a year in 1948-49 as the first American student at a German university after World War II, I also studied the Mackinder Heartland Theory as applied by Karl Haushofer, who was Hitler’s global theoretician, because I was writing a book on the intellectual and spiritual dynamics of resistance against totalitarian ideologies (hence my life-long interest in the NeoCons).
The NeoCon theoreticians do not advocate Mackinder’s school of geopolitics, perhaps because it argues against the “power from the periphery” theory of global politics led by America. Nevertheless, subliminally they apply the Mackinder theory to justify U.S. policy toward Central Asia by almost reversing it to read that a global power can and must control Afghanistan even if this power is not based in the Asian heartland.
President Obama is committed big-time to “victory” in Afghanistan as his hoped for legacy to humanity. Unfortunately, he seems to be equally committed to centralized secular governments imposed by military and police power as agents of foreign powers and as the solution to all problems. Will his administration merely continue the policies of the NeoCons at a time when we can least afford it? No wonder Osama bin Laden is crowing, “Bring em on!”