Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Should Progressives Adopt an Indirect Strategy?

In Eat Your Hart Out of August 22, 2006, Sean Gonsalves, who writes for the Cape Cod Times, criticizes all those who still cling to the stay-the-course rhetoric on Iraq as empty and counterproductive sloganeering. He does so by quoting from what he calls "THE classic book on military strategy" by the British military historian Basil Henry Liddell Hart, who many refer to as the Clausewitz of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he omits to tell us which of his numerous books he refers to, but it seems safe to assume that it is his major work, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, first published in 1941.

He also fails to mention John Mearsheimer's Liddell Hart and the Weight of History from 1989, in which he argues that much of his work is faulty and of little originality, which casts doubts on Gonsalves' claim that Liddell Hart really was such an outstanding strategist.

Without being able to evaluate these contradictory claims at this time, Liddell Hart's basic approach to strategy seems highly relevant to progressive strategy. Needless to say, we should always be aware of the risks and limits associated with applying military strategy to political strategy.

Liddell Hart's lifelong study of military history and strategy led him to formulate his key insight as the indirect approach to strategy, which consists of two fundamental principles:

1. If the enemy is in a strong position, direct attacks almost never work, because they exhaust the attacker and reinforce the enemy's resistance, and therefore should be avoided.

2. Since the enemy can't be defeated through a direct attack, you first have to weaken his position by upsetting him through unexpected attacks before the main attack can succeed.

In Liddell Hart's own words,
During this survey one impression became increasingly strong - that, throughout the ages, effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had ... indirectness. In strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.

This indirect strategy seems quite applicable to progressive strategy today. Despite the conservatives' mounting problems, their position is still very strong in all three dimensions of power: institutional, infrastructural, and ideological. Given that progressive resources will remain limited for the foreseeable future, a direct attack on the "conservative machine" would be counterproductive, since it would waste precious resources without achieving any significant success.

Self-exhaustion in war has killed more States [sic] than any foreign assailant.

Progressives should remember that they risk exhausting themselves if they continue to spread themselves too thinly. If you want to upset your adversary, you can't afford to squander your resources, and instead have to concentrate them where they are most likely to achieve your objectives.

One of the key challenges for progressive strategy therefore is to find out how best to upset the conservatives' equilibrium in order to loosen their grip on power.

In the civil rights movement, the use of strategic nonviolence succeeded in drawing public attention to unjust practices, and this tactic is still advocated by some today, such as Bill Domhoff. But given that there is no movement today that is remotely comparable to the civil rights movement, one can doubt whether it still can be effective, since there is no larger movement that it can connect to.

The indirect strategy is also reminiscent of Marshall Ganz' emphasis on the critical role of creative and innovative thinking by the leaders of organizations in enhancing their strategic capacity, precisely in circumstances where their resources are structurally constrained. Ganz developed his understanding of strategic capacity and how to improve it in Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements (2005), and discussed it at the Third Progressive Strategy Seminar in 2006.


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