Strategic Defense Initiative

Distance from disorder is the key to winning the terror war.

William S. Lind

Originally published in The American Conservative, November 22, 2004.  Reprinted with permission.

IN THE CACOPHONY of an election year, one matter of prime importance seemed to be agreed by all parties: in the so-called War on Terror, America must remain on the offensive. Immediately before George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech, the White House released as an excerpt, "America is on the offensive against the terrorists.” Speaking to the Congress of Tomorrow in Philadelphia later the same month, Bush said, “No question, we will win the war on terror by staying on the offensive. This administration and this leadership is committed to making sure we stay on the offensive against the terrorists.” He told the American Legion, “We’re on the offensive against terror, and we will stay on the offensive against terror.” Following the Madrid railway bombings, the Washington Post reported, “Bush’s aides said he began talking to other world leaders about his determination to remain on the offensive in the war on terrorism.” It sounded as if the ghost of von Schlieffen prowled the halls of the Bush White House.

The offensive strategic orientation of John Kerry was subtler but present nonetheless. In March 2004, speaking to the International Association of Firefighters, Kerry said, “I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the War on Terror; I believe he’s done too little.” And in a speech at Drake University in December 2003, where he laid out a broad foreign-policy vision, Kerry said, “From the Battle of Belleau Wood to the Battle of the Bulge, from Korea to Kosovo, the story of the last century is of an America that accepted the heavy responsibility of its historic obligation—to serve as not just a beacon of hope, but to work with allies across the world to defend and extend the frontiers of freedomTo provide responsible leadership, we need a bold, progressive internationalism—backed by undoubted military might—that commits America to lead in the cause of human liberty and prosperity.” This is strong Wilsonianism, which by its nature puts America on the strategic offensive.

There is little doubt that “being on the offensive” sounded good to most voters. But if the objective is to design a strategy that brings victory in the War on Terror, a different approach may have much to recommend it. That oft-quoted if seldom read Prussian, Carl von Clausewitz, believed that the defensive was the stronger form of war.

Early in his book On War (a German friend has a first edition; he notes, “It is in perfect condition. It was in a regimental library, so it was never touched.”), Clausewitz writes, “defense is simply the stronger form of war, the one that makes the enemy’s defeat more certain. We maintain unequivocally that the form of warfare that we call defense not only offers greater probability of victory than attack, but that its victories can attain the same proportions and results.” In a direct swipe at most of what is being said and written at present, he perorates, So in order to state the relationship precisely, we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive [emphasis in original]. This is the point that we have been trying to make, for although it is implicit in the nature of the matter and experience has confirmed it again and again, it is at odds with prevalent opinion, which proves how ideas can be confused by superficial writers.” And, perhaps, by candidates for high political office.

What might a defensive strategy in America’s War on Terror look like? Before we can approach that question, we must address two other points. First, the threat America faces is not merely terrorism, which is only a technique. The threat is Fourth Generation warfare, which is a vastly broader phenomenon. Fourth Generation war marks the greatest dialectically qualitative change in the conduct of war since the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. It has three central characteristics:

  • The loss of the state's monopoly on war and on the first loyalty of its citizens and the rise of non-state entities that command people’s primary loyalty and that wage war. These entities may be gangs, religions, races and ethnic groups within races, localities, tribes, business enterprises, ideologies—the variety is almost limitless;

  • A return to a world of cultures, not, merely states, in conflict; and

  • The manifestation of both developments—the decline of the state and the rise of alternate, often cultural, primary loyalties—not only “over there,” but in America itself.

Second, no state armed forces know how to defeat Fourth Generation opponents militarily, and thus far none have been able to do so. Politically, the most fundamental characteristic of the Fourth Generation, a crisis of legitimacy of the state, is not recognized in any national capital. Combined, these two facts render many states extraordinarily vulnerable to Fourth Generation opponents.

Col John Boyd, USAF, America’s greatest military theorist, defined grand strategy as the art of connecting to as many other independent power centers as possible, while isolating the enemy from as many independent power centers as possible. The grand strategic question facing the US is how to do that in a 21st century that will increasingly be dominated by non-state, Fourth Generation forces.

The answer begins by considering why the state first arose toward the end of the 15th century. Medieval Europe was a highly ordered, cultured, and successful society. It was brought down primarily by the plague, a point of more than historical interest in a world where many non-state forces may be able to carry out biological attacks. After the medieval order fell, it was succeeded by disorder, which led naturally to a strong desire for order, which in time was supplied by the state.

As we already see in those parts of the world such as West Africa where the state is disappearing, the state, like the medieval world, is followed by disorder. A Fourth Generation world will be one where disorder spreads like mold in a damp bathroom.

What does Colonel Boyd’s definition of grand strategy mean in such a world? It means America’s grand strategy should seek to connect our country with as many centers and sources of order as possible, while isolating us from as many centers and sources of disorder as possible. This is the only reasonable chance of preserving something called the “United States” in a 21st century dominated by Fourth Generation war. And, as we will see, it leads toward a. defensive, not offensive, military strategy.

What do we mean by centers and sources of order? First, places where the state still stands. The state arose to bring order, and in portions of the world it continues to do so. While the crisis of legitimacy of the state is universal, that does not mean it will everywhere reach catastrophic proportions. Those places where the state endures not simply as an empty form will remain centers of (relative) order. America is already connected to those places in a wide variety of ways and should strive to remain so. Actions such as the war in Iraq that tend to isolate us from successful states run counter to our interests.

In a Fourth Generation world, surviving states will not be the only centers of order. One of the central characteristics of the Fourth Generation is a return to a world where culture will often be more significant than statehood, and some cultures tend toward order. An example is Chinese culture, which extends well beyond the borders of the Chinese state. Order is the highest Chinese virtue; so, at least, Confucianism would suggest.

As people around the world transfer their primary loyalty from the state to a wide variety of other entities, some of these entities may also emerge as sources of order. Religions may become sources of order; we see that happening today as Christianity grows in places of chronic disorder such as Africa. Ideologies may be centers of order, depending on the ideology. Businesses and other commercial undertakings may be sources of order. So might mercenary armies. Because some, perhaps many, sources of order in the 21st century will not be states and may even appear strange or disreputable, the people who run foreign ministries may find it difficult to imagine building connectivity to them. But that is one of the novel actions the Fourth Generation will require.

One of the primary centers of disorder in the 21st century will be failed states—areas where the state has either disappeared or become simply one more criminal gang among many. Current examples include much of Africa, Somalia, Mesopotamia (following America’s destruction of the Iraqi state), Afghanistan, parts of the former Soviet Union, and the West Bank of the Jordan River. These areas represent the future for much of the world. Just as some cultures are likely to be centers of order, others will be centers or sources of disorder.

One culture provides an example of the fact that centers and sources of disorder may not be identical—Islam. Because Islam is a religion of rules, it is capable of providing internal order in Islamic societies. As Robert Kaplan has noted, a stranger with a fat wallet can walk safely through some of the poorest Islamic slums. Islam, however, is likely to be one of the principal sources of disorder in a Fourth Generation world, even while some parts of the Islamic world may be centers of order. The reason is that Islam demands its believers wage endless jihad in the Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world (literally the “world of war”), and a world where the state is weakening will be a happy hunting ground. The long-standing Arab military tradition of irregular light cavalry warfare is especially well suited when adapted with modern technologies and carried out at operational and strategic levels. Indeed, that is much of what Washington now calls terrorism.

One important way in which centers of disorder will also act as sources of disorder will be by producing hordes of refugees and emigrants. It is natural to flee disorder. But as some European countries have already discovered, accepting refugees from centers of disorder imports disorder. Just as people from highly ordered cultures, such as Germans or Scandinavians, take order with them wherever they go, so people from disordered places are bearers of chaos, The ways of life necessary for survival in centers of disorder—lying, cheating, stealing, and killing—become habits, and they are not easily left behind.

Other centers and sources of disorder will to some extent mirror centers of order: religions, ideologies, commercial enterprises (the drug trade is already a powerful example), mercenaries, and so on. One source of disorder that will not. have a mirror image is disease. Centers of disorder will become breeding grounds for plagues and diseases of every sort, and some of them will travel well. West Nile virus is already a growing concern in the U.S. and it is merely the forerunner of a vast Pandora’s box. The fact that some diseases may be genetically engineered as weapons of war will make the danger all the greater.

The Bush administration appears to recognize dimly that the fundamental fault line of the 21st century will be that between order and disorder. In his Sept. 25, 2003, speech to the United Nations, Bush declared, “Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides, between those who seek order and those who spread chaos.” The administration errs in assuming that the forces of order are the stronger party, and this assumption underlies its offensive strategy. But  because the root of Fourth Generation war lies in a crisis of legitimacy of the state, and the state is still the main agent of order in the world, the forces of order in the 21st century will be weaker than the forces of disorder. When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, it assumed order would be easy to maintain or restore because the Iraqi state would endure. The actual effect of the invasion was to destroy the Iraqi state and replace it with chaos.

This brings us to the next question: what do we mean by “connect” and “isolate”? Connection is easy enough to understand. Goods money, people, and ideas all flow freely with minimal barriers. Americans view those to whom we are connected as friends, extending help in times of need and also asking for and receiving assistance, including in war. Commercially, we buy their products and sometimes they even buy ours.

“Isolate” is more difficult to understand, in part because in the lexicon of the present foreign-policy establishment, “isolationism” is a term of opprobrium. But as America learned on Sept. 11, a Fourth Generation world will be a place where our physical security will depend on our ability and willingness to isolate ourselves from certain forces.

What isolation means will vary from case to case, but in some situations it will require actions that appear harsh by current standards. For example, we may find it necessary to prohibit people from certain places from entering the U.S. We may need to profile on a variety of bases, including religious belief and ethnic origin. Isolation may also inflict hardships on Americans, as when we must avoid becoming dependent on imports such as Middle Eastern oil.

In general, isolation will mean minimizing contacts that involve flows of people, money, materials, and new primary loyalties, such as religions and ideologies, into the United States. Flows in the other direction will generally be less dangerous, except for the fact that one-way relationships are difficult to sustain. They tend to become reciprocal, which means importing danger. Americans will require a newfound self-discipline in a Fourth Generation world, realizing they cannot have it all (and have it cheaply) without creating serious threats to America’s homeland security.

In terms of foreign relations, isolation will more often apply to regions where the state is weak or has vanished. But it will sometimes be necessary for us to isolate ourselves from other states, especially states that exist in form but not in reality. Unfortunately, friendly relations will leave open the door to the non-state elements that are the real powers within the hollow form of the other state, and those powers may be threats to us. Saudi Arabia may soon be a state that falls in this category.

How does this isolate the enemy, which in our strategy means centers and sources of disorder, from other independent power centers? Here, our proposed grand strategy works indirectly, in a way John Boyd might appreciate. To use one of his favorite expressions, it folds the enemy back on himself.

As the offensive strategy of the Bush administration has demonstrated, when we choose to engage centers and sources of disorder, attacking them militarily or demanding reforms inconsistent with their cultures, we provide an external threat against which they can unite. Conversely, if we isolate ourselves from them, we will help them focus on and thus accentuate their internal contradictions. This is a classic case of inaction being a form of action.


The Islamic world offers an example. Islam mandates jihad against all non-Islamics, which means Islam will always be a threat to the U.S. But Islam itself is also riven with internal conflicts. Those internal conflicts are now minimized because Islamics can call for unity against an external threat. Even so, internal conflicts persist: many Shi'ite Iraqis blame car bombings in Shi'ite areas on Wahhabi Muslims.

In Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam, Michael Vlahos argues that what we are seeing in the Islamic world today follows an age-old pattern. Purist elements arise that accuse existing Islamic governments of straying from Islam; that pure Islam cannot govern; attempting to make things work, they also become corrupt; and new purist elements gather to bring about their overthrow. This cycle could work to America’s advantage if she isolated herself from it, because it focuses Islamic energies inward. As Boyd would say, it tends to fold Islam back on itself.

What are the implications for the conduct of strategy, the military component of grand strategy?

First, note that no strategy is a hard and fast rule that can he applied mechanically. Strategy is an art; its conduct, as Helmuth von Moltke said, is a matter of expedients. In the conduct of strategy, the engineering approach to problems favored by Americans is not useful. Past attempts along engineering lines, such as the Weinberger Doctrine and the Powell Doctrine, resulted only in pseudo-strategies that were useless in the real world. Real strategies do not seek to create templates but rather inform and shape specific actions, harmonizing them and giving them a coherence that will often he visible only in retrospect.

Within this context, one of the first implications of our recommended grand strategy is that America’s current military strategy—a strong strategic offensive coupled with a weak tactical offensive—is wrong. Strategically, we are launching military attacks launching military attacks on perceived opponents worldwide, or at least, threatening to do so, under a doctrine of preventive war. But tactically, our attacks are weak because it is relatively easy for our real enemies, non-state forces, to sidestep them.

Both Afghanistan arid Iraq provide examples. America took the strategic military offensive, invading both countries. But in Afghanistan, on the tactical level, both al-Qa'ida and the Taliban survived our attempts to destroy them and are now coming back. The reason they could do so is that our Second Generation armed forces fight by putting firepower on targets, and Fourth Generation forces are very good at making themselves untargetable. Even in Operation Anaconda, when al-Qa'ida stood and fought, the inability of the Second Generation American Army to fight a battle of encirclement (something that is central to Third Generation tactics) allowed the enemy to escape with small losses.

The situation in Iraq is similar. For the most part, the Iraqi armed forces did not contest our advance to Baghdad. Whether that was part of their strategy is not yet known. But the result was to leave those forces alive and armed to serve as a basis for a guerrilla war. The non-state forces that are emerging from the wreckage of the Iraqi state are proving to be as untargetable as those in Afghanistan.

Instead of a strategic military offensive coupled with a weak tactical offensive, our grand strategy would urge a strategic military defensive coupled with a powerful strategic and tactical counteroffensive. In simple terms, this means we would leave centers and sources of disorder alone militarily (and in other ways) unless they attacked us. But if they attacked us, our response would be Roman, which is to say annihilating.

The logic of a defensive strategy is almost self-evident. If our grand strategic goal is to connect ourselves to order while isolating ourselves from disorder, we will not want to undertake military offensives aimed at other states that are themselves centers of (again, relative) order. If successful, such offensives will usually result in the destruction of the opposing state and its reduction to a new center of stateless disorder. Offensives against centers and sources of disorder run directly contrary to the goal of isolating ourselves from them. As we see both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the most thorough way to enmesh ourselves in a center of disorder is to invade and occupy it. A strategically defensive military posture is a necessary outgrowth from our recommended grand strategy.

The second part of our prescription, an annihilating counteroffensive, needs some elaboration. Here again, Clausewitz is helpful:

What is the concept of defense? The parrying of a blow. What is its characteristic feature? Awaiting the blow. It is this feature that turns any action into a defensive one; it is the only test by which defense can he distinguished from attack in war. Pure defense, however, would he completely contrary to the idea of war, since it would mean that only one side was waging it. Therefore, defense in war can only be relative, and the characteristic feature of waiting should be applied only to the basic concept, not to all of its components.

The challenge facing an annihilating counterstroke is not theoretical but practical: how do we accomplish it? There may be some instances in which our Second Generation armed forces can do it, for example by carpet bombing from B-52s. Should we ever succeed in transitioning the American armed services to the Third Generation, more options would open up, such as large-scale battles of encirclement.. But in some cases, unconventional weapons will have to be employed.

When that is the case, it will be imperative that the employment of unconventional weapons follows instantly after a successful attack on the United States. As Machiavelli would understand, such a reaction must appear to be a "spasm” on our part, not a calculated act. In 1914, had Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia within 48 hours of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she might well have gotten away with it. While the world, in shock over the 9/11 attack, might have accepted an apparent American spasm with unconventional weapons, it also might have objected that any first use of such weapons would be the end of efforts to stop the proliferation ot weapons of mass destruction.

But in fact, from a Fourth Generation perspective, the genie of WMD is already out of the bottle. The Fourth Generation threat is not states delivering nuclear weapons by ballistic missile. but non-state actors developing genetically engineered plagues that can be delivered anonymously by shipping container (small nuclear weapons, bought or stolen, may come the same way). The technology already exists, and unlike that required to build nuclear weapons, it does not require much in the way of facilities. It is knowledge-based, and the knowledge is or soon will be universally available. Such plagues can be more, not less, devastating than nuclear weapons.

A defensive military strategy that includes an annihilating counterattack is consistent with our grand strategy of isolating centers and sources of disorder while folding them back on themselves, yet it runs no danger of being perceived as weakness on our part. On the contrary, it both demonstrates and demands more strength of will than is currently evident in the Washington establishment, in either political party.

The next implication, or perhaps precondition, of our grand strategy is one that is very difficult yet essential, to grasp. America itself may not remain a center of order in a Fourth Generation world.. As dangerous as the importation of Fourth Generation war into America is, more dangerous still is the Fourth Generation war that America may develop from within.

To survive the crisis of legitimacy of the state that lies at the heart of Fourth Generation war, a state needs two qualities: an open political system and a unitary culture. At present, America has a closed political system, dominated by an establishment that is in essence a single political party, and she is pursuing a policy of multiculturalism that enhances and exacerbates cultural frictions. While an open political system and a unitary culture are to some degree fungible—Japan’s unitary culture will probably allow the Japanese state to survive despite its closed political system, while Switzerland’s open political system preserves legitimacy despite three distinct cultures—any state that has neither is likely to experience a crisis of legitimacy. At the least, we cannot assume that the United States will not experience such a crisis, to the point where self-generated Fourth Generation war is not even a possibility. Police departments in some large American cities would be quick to note that they are already facing Fourth Generation opponents on the streets.

There are, of course, steps the American state could take to minimize the chance of Fourth Generation war developing here. The most urgent is to end the current de facto policy of open immigration. Because multiculturalism works against acculturation of immigrants, mass immigration from other cultures is a clear and present danger in a Fourth Generation world. When large numbers of immigrants retain a primary loyalty to their own cultures rather than to the American state, they provide an ideal base for Fourth Generation war.

More broadly, if America is to avoid Fourth Generation war on her own soil, she needs to address the two origins of the crisis of legitimacy of the state. That means opening up the political system and abandoning multiculturalism for a policy of encouraging what used to be called Americanization (and is in fact the adoption of Anglo-Saxon norms, at least in the public square). Americanization means actions such as restoring America’s public schools as primary centers of acculturation, a role they played effectively a century ago, and making English the only legal language in public business. Opening the political system means actions such as giving third parties a real chance against the two major parties, term limits, putting none of the above” on the ballots, reducing the power of money in politics (what American politicians call “campaign contributions” are recognized in the rest of the world as bribes), making much more use of ballot initiatives and referenda, and restraining the judiciary from legislating.

On the grand strategic level, where foreign and domestic policy unite, avoiding Fourth Generation war on America’s own soil (regardless of its source) means recognizing that in a Fourth Generation world, the enemy is disorder itself. This does not mean that the answer to the Fourth Generation threat is to increase the raw power of the state through ill-considered legislation such as the Patriot Act. On the contrary, giving the state extra constitutional powers will exacerbate its crisis of legitimacy. The American Constitution, as it was created and understood by the founders, is a means to a new legitimacy, not an obstacle to it.


America’s ability to prevent the spread of Fourth Generation war elsewhere in the world will be small. Overt American military support to states facing Fourth Generation threats will most often be counterproductive because it will undermine the legitimacy of the government the United States is fighting to uphold. The more relevant question is how an America that has succeeded in avoiding the Fourth Generation at home might relate to a world where the state is generally in decline.

The Islamic world, as noted, may not everywhere be a center of disorder, but it is likely to be a vast source of disorder. Isolating ourselves from it will mean weaning ourselves from dependence on Arab oil (Russian oil could substitute, at least for a while). Because China may be a major center of order in the 21st century, those voices in Washington that see war with China as inevitable represent folly. From a Fourth Generation perspective, America and China are united by the most powerful of all strategic common interests, an interest in the preservation of order. China should be viewed as a strategic ally of the first importance under any government that can maintain China’s internal unity.

Latin America is likely to be an area where the crisis of legitimacy of the state sharpens and Fourth Generation forces grow more powerful. Isolating the United States from the resulting disorder will above all mean effective immigration control. Africa is already being devoured by Fourth Generation war, which is not surprising in a region where states were never real and most governments are kleptocracies. The rapid spread of Christianity could provide a countervailing force, but Africa's future is probably war, plague, famine, and death. Isolating America from Africa will he necessary but should not he difficult, barring pure imbecility on the part of American politicians. India's future is uncertain; her national unity depends on maintaining the veneer of the Raj, which is wearing a bit thin. Isolating America from a disordered India, should India crumble, would not be difficult.

Europe’s future, like that of the United States, is not so assured as some may assume. Europe has imported an enormous source of disorder in the form of immigrants from other cultures, many of them Islamic. It is by no means impossible that the 21st century will see Europe compelled to undertake a second expulsion of the Moors. If Europe is to survive, it will have to bring its birthrate up substantially. Russia is an important part of Europe, and regrettably it is a part where the state is now fragile. The US missed a golden opportunity to forge an enduring, strategic alliance with Russia when Communism fell; to the degree that opportunity has not been lost—largely through inane American actions such as going to war with Serbia on behalf of Islam—it should be pursued.

One theme shines through this brief circumnavigation: the requirement that America not be dependent on any part of the world that is a center or source of disorder. Here, the implication is less for American foreign policy than for American economic policy. While the United States need not pursue a policy of autarky, it does require what might best be termed full economic independence. That is to say, we need to be able to manage on what we’ve got if we have to, in terms both of natural resources and manufacturing capability.

By now, one point should he clear: a defensive strategy oriented toward a Fourth Generation threat leaves us with an entirely different frame of reference from the one that now prevails in Washington. Everything changes, in what would he the greatest alterations in American grand strategy, military strategy, and force structure since 1917.

Nothing illustrates better the magnitude of the challenge than the response a defensive strategy and its logical outgrowths would surely elicit from those in power. “Is such a transformation even imaginable politically?” they will ask. Their answer, stated or implied, will be, “Certainly not.” At the same time, the question that the decline of the state, the state’s loss of its monopoly on war, and the rise of the Fourth Generation poses is, “Would even these changes be sufficient to enable the United Slates to protect itself in a world dominated by Fourth Generation war?” The distance between those two questions measures the likelihood that the American state will survive the 21st century.

William S. Lind is a Center Director with the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes and lectures internationally on military theory, strategy, and doctrine.