Professionals, academics, and activists, in their efforts to seize intellectual control of military strategy, put aside the psychic economy of war, its no less real because symbolic dimensions, only at risk of putting the subject itself aside.
Referencing the work of theorist J.C. Wylie, defense analysts Adam Elkus and Nick Prime propose an alternative to “To Degrade, and, Ultimately, To Destroy“: an at least superficially simpler framework centered on a particular control concept:
[T]he range of options for American strategy and policy that current politics allow could be placed within two broadly defined categories: those which seek to assert some degree of control and those which seek to deny the adversary’s desired degree of control. In this case, denying ISIL’s desired degree of control would entail capping its size and power at some qualitatively defined scale. Attaining our own degree of control involves violently cutting them down to size.
At the outset we should note that Elkus and Prime’s definition of “control” seems intended to be restrictive and objective enough to counter the criticism that will arise by reflex: that perception of control in such matters must always be illusory. ((Accusing Elkus and Prime of naively embracing a “male fantasy” of controlling “the other” would be both trite and utterly beside the point. The re-direction inward also brings to mind another type of male fantasy or even a Foucauldian “discipline and punish” framework, but we can also steer clear of this discourse and its embedded prejudices against the very project whose value and validity Prime and Elkus must presume. If diversion is our objective, we would do as well to invoke the wisdom of prime-time television and speculate on the interdependence of Maxwell and Siegfried.)) Elkus and Prime specifically do not envision an American hegemon determining present and future events totally and comprehensively, or even, at least explicitly, in relation to larger strategic (or historical) objectives. Nor do they envision the United States taking control of the lives of the people of Iraq and Syria. Control for them amounts to a refusal to seek control on those levels. In other words, the prerequisite of the control strategy is to take control over the concept, and to take control of the concept is at the same time the final objective: Indeed, as their concluding remarks underline, their objective is as much self- as other-directed: “to help discipline and structure U.S. policy and strategy towards ISIL”: Control alone provides the control upon which control depends.
The question that Elkus and Prime do not answer, that they must in a sense refuse to address on its own terms, is whether seeking and achieving control as they have thus defined it, or controlled it, can really be satisfactory – that is, satisfying. Seemingly quite aware of this problem, and of the danger to analysts of replacing their object with an analytically falsified reduction, Elkus and Prime take cognizance of “an emotional drive to see ISIL punished for its brutalization of American citizens and flouting of American power and prestige,” treat that “drive” as an authentic and undiminishable factor for strategists to consider, and seek to incorporate emotional necessity within their definition, especially in their repeated references to the “violence” their strategy permits ((The authors even link to one of this blog’s treatments of the topic.)):
A certain level of control violently achieved will satisfy both American security concerns and restore American dignity and self-image. And a certain level of control denied will prevent ISIL from expanding any further, or, after the process of disciplining is achieved, prevent it from growing back again.
The obvious problem with this mixed end state or pseudo-state, a “violently achieved” restoration of order and of “dignity and self-image,” is that it seems to rest on the same elisions and contradictions underlying the policy that is taken to have failed: “Since the start of the Syrian civil war,” write Elkus and Prime in their framing assessment, “American policy has focused on the containment and, to an extent, management of potential escalation, keeping the conflict at an ‘acceptable’ level of violence, and more importantly preventing it from spilling over.” Yet, as they further acknowledge, and must acknowledge in order to predicate their argument for intervention, the attempt to control or to maintain a state of sufficient control – or to achieve “containment” and “management” at an “acceptable” (or “‘acceptable'”) level of violence – has not prevented, to use their own expression, the “meteoric” rise of a new force whose own control objectives equate with a loss of control to Americans, both to policymakers whose triumphs have proven empty, and to citizens made aware of new dangers: One pseudo-state calls forth another, as the goal of “mere control” constructs its own eventual failure, both psychologically and, it seems, practically.
For satisfaction we will need to look elsewhere.