The Caravan

Center Of Gravity

Tuesday, June 18, 2019
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Vom Krieg in die Wüste.

In Tolstoy’s massive novel War and Peace at the Battle of Borodino with Napoleon’s Grande Armée some eighty miles from Moscow, Carl von Clausewitz, then and now the foremost strategist of the study of war, suddenly canters onto the scene in a cameo appearance and is overheard to pronounce on the fighting:

Der krieg muss im Raum
verlegt werden. Der
Ansicht kann ich nicht
genug Preis geben.1

Clausewitz, whose literary style is always somewhat sibylline, is referring here to his doctrine of “The Center of Gravity,” or schwerpunkt, the point where the enemy’s essential power is concentrated and which, if conquered by your own forces, will bring victory to your side and cause.  There are four such center of gravity points:  it is the task of a commander’s grasp of strategy and statecraft to decide which of the four to concentrate upon.  They are:

  • The enemy’s capital city;
  • The enemy’s army;
  • The enemy’s territory;
  • The enemy’s allies.

Here was Clausewitz being unusually clear and specific.  As a template for analyzing and understanding a war, it has been usefully revealing.  In War and Peace, coming into the story at Borodino, it brings a shock of recognition:  Napoleon is doing everything wrong by doing everything at once.  He is driving his Grande Armée toward Moscow to capture the enemy’s capital:  he is seeking to engage with and destroy the enemy’s army when the Russian Field Marshall Kutuzov, following a strategy made famous by the Roman general Fabius Maximus Cunctator (the delayer), was luring the French emperor-general ever-deeper into the futile possession of Russian territory.  As for the enemy’s ally, it could have been France itself, but Napoleon’s hubristic ambitions destroyed that stratagem.

The American Civil War can also be illuminated by this Clausewitzian angle of vision.  Lincoln’s conundrum was whether his generals should seize Richmond or aim to destroy Lee’s army; he chose the enemy’s army.  But the Union “March through Georgia” to take territory made the difference.  On the side of the South this perspective adds drama to Gettysburg as Lee’s decision shocked the world when the Confederacy threatened to take territory in the Union North.  As for allies, it was the American Minister in London Charles Francis Adams, as recorded by his secretarial aide and son Henry Adams, that neutered the pro-Confederacy thinking of Great Britain’s grandees.

What if Carl von Clausewitz today made his appearance on the sands of the Middle East – in die Wüste?  We can imagine him on an Arabian thoroughbred cantering up to a Saudi desert encampment out for some recreational falconry, or perhaps joining a confab at the Egyptian president’s Sinai Resthouse, or joining some Israelis picnicking on the Golan Heights, or even kibitzing on the edges of a strategizing session with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as they count their take from their Iraqi and Syrian functionaries.

Clausewitz’s gentle advice – one has to watch one’s step in the Middle East – would be to forget the first three items on the Center of Gravity list: capital cities will not fall; rival militaries will not be smashed by “kinetic” operations; well then, territory?  Yes, here and there, but hard to get and harder to keep.  The Clausewitzian way would be under the heading of “allies”: not allies in the traditional sense of world affairs, but as a series or pattern of outlying partnerships, dependencies, satellites, and religious or financial connections which when taken together and connected as “dots” on the map would add weight and power to your own center of gravity.  This in a way may have been invented through the early Israeli concept of “facts on the ground.”

Through this lens, the actions of the few still-standing state regimes in the region may take on added meaning: Why Iran has set up a corridor of dots from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean to Shia militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza.  Why has Saudi Arabia had a hand in the current rebellion against the U.S. and UN-supported Tripoli government of Libya?  The United Arab Emirates (aka “Little Sparta”) appears to be best at this game, using its impressive military as a roving sales force.  The answer may lie in neo-Clausewitzian efforts to deepen the region’s various centers of gravity with the UAE emerging as the intra-Islam counter to Iran.

To this “inside” reading of the Middle East must now be added the “outside” interpretation of Professor L. Carl Brown: that the diplomacy and dangers of the region have been magnified in a unique way by its gravitational pull on the world’s big powers beyond the Arab-Islamic and Israeli polities.  Brown described this force as it affected Britain, France, Russia, and the U.S.  To these can now be added the People’s Republic of China, each of these with its own Clausewitzian interpretations and interests.

What would be useful at this point would be a map designed to show the various key regimes and their “outside” interveners in terms of their interacting designs to enhance their respective centers of gravity.  All this would add up to something, but what?

Clausewitzians have no monopoly on this strategic concept.  The Far East version comes in the ancient game of Wei Ch’i, or “Go,” with its goal of “Controlling the Board.”  With the Islamic Republic of Iran’s dispatch of Hezbollah elements to Venezuela, the whole globe may come into play in the future.

 1 In German in Tolstoy’s Russian text: “War must be extended in space.  I cannot put too much value on that.”