To a cynic, American administrations are regularly criticized for having no strategy or having the wrong one.
Sun Tzu had it right. The best strategy is to win without fighting. But how is that to be accomplished?
Second best on the great Chinese strategist's list was to win by attacking the enemy's strategy. That, in turn, requires understanding what that strategy is in order to defeat it. States have not always been prescient enough to figure that out.
Traditional strategies were based on defeating or destroying an enemy's means and will to resist, principally armies, navies and later air forces. However, that was not how the United States won independence from Britain. It did so by losing virtually every battle, winning the two most important: Saratoga in 1777, which brought France onto the colonies' side as part of its global war with England; and Yorktown in 1781, when Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered, ending the revolution.
Ho Chi Minh successfully employed this strategy of winning by not losing to drive the French and later the Americans out of Vietnam. Ho won the battle of Dienbienphu, forcing the French to leave in 1953. And while North Vietnam lost virtually every battle it fought with the U.S. military, it won in America's living rooms. Some 58,000 dead Americans made that war unwinnable.
The latest and most diabolical and demonic strategy is that of Hamas in Gaza. While some will argue that many decades of Palestinian repression by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza was the provocation for Oct. 7, the most proximate cause was the prospect of a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, the extremely barbaric and inhuman executions of the strategy to force Israel to (over)react were obscene and violated all the laws of war, as well as the Geneva Conventions.
The question is how might Sun Tzu attack Hamas' strategy to defeat it? One answer is that he could not. The more Israel attempts to destroy Hamas, the more death and destruction will be levied on Gaza, ultimately damaging Israel. The diabolical part is that Israel had no real option.
The more contemplative strategy would have been highly precise kinetic and non-kinetic strikes, including propaganda, misinformation and disinformation that over time would have greatly degraded Hamas, combined with a diplomatic plan to provide a functional government for Gaza when the war ends.
In fairness, given the brutality of Oct. 7, not even Job would have been able to implement this alternative. Hence, how does one defeat this strategy of forcing the enemy to lay waste to one's home? Perhaps one does not.
As the North Vietnamese may have learned from the American Revolution, to win by not losing, might other state and non-state actors plagiarize the Hamas strategy? One parallel is in financial markets. Short-selling is when you bet that a stock will steeply drop in value. The difference in the price when you buy in and when the stock depreciates is your profit.
Short-sellers are notorious at staging events and creating false data to drive a stock down. Clearly, some of this is illegal. And some of it is not. A select number of investors made billions betting that markets would collapse over the credit default swaps in 2008-09. And they won that bet.
The geostrategic parallel is obvious. Suppose societal infrastructure were attacked, from power and water distribution to financial and healthcare facilities. My last book wrote of the looming existential dangers of Massive Attacks of Disruption, whether a pandemic or extreme weather, and of man -- Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The aim is to impose such harm to collapse the system to force a regime change or to exploit another opportunity.
For those who dismiss this as fantasy, what conclusions can be drawn from Hamas' strategy? As Ho was clever, will another actor recognize the power of winning by imposing massive destruction? How does one defeat that strategy?
There is a need for MAP -- Mutual Assured Prevention as the intellectual foundation for future security. While replacing old and traditional thinking is invariably a reaction only to a crisis or a calamity, in the future that may be too late. Action is needed now.
Hamas has concocted a strategy from hell that may not be countered by traditional thinking. We would be well advised to begin thinking about what happens when others embrace this nightmare scenario to achieve whatever outrageous aims they may harbor.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.