Strategic Logic and Political Rationality: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel

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One explanation is that war-termination decisions involve unusually difficult strategic choices.

The two key choices are: 1 what to demand politically; and 2 how far to go militarily. Not only do decisions on those two issues have to be rationally correlated and to take into account the enemy and, in many cases, allied reaction to them, but they also embody a special case in the general logic of strategy, for calculations of costs and benefits must be made in increments at the margin: how much additional cost will going further militarily involve and how much additional benefit might going further deliver, in the form of a more favorable and durable peace?

A major complication bedevils any such calculation.


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The costs will involve less uncertainty than the benefits, because the costs will happen soon and be quite palpable, while the benefits, if there are any, will only materialize over a much longer time and their possible value will be hard to measure in advance. It is no easy matter for leaders, especially in a democracy, to solve that riddle of rationality. Another explanation that Lee offers for real or perceived shortcomings in US war-termination performance is that in its major twentieth-century wars the United States tended to have multiple layers of political purpose, of which the most elevated layer was usually quite abstract or amorphous.

Results in the real world fell short of aspirations laid out on paper and in speeches; criticism followed. US military leaders were limited in the degree to which, and the skill with which, they addressed matters of policy. US political leaders were limited in their willingness to push forward the generals and in their understanding of the political implications of military matters. In no case do US political and military leaders seem to have talked with each other early and often about the key war-termination issues. According to this interpretation, the United States, like other great powers, typically goes to war for balance-of-power reasons.

But since those reasons rarely have much appeal to the American electorate, presidents make their public case for war in highly moral terms. Political and military leaders fear that the public will react very negatively to such casualties arising from what might be criticized as an unnecessary prolongation of the war. That fear gives those leaders a strong incentive to devalue whatever long-term benefits going further militarily might deliver in the form of a more favorable and durable peace.

Arguably, the incentive to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term is reinforced by the electoral calendar of American democracy. Presidents are elected for only four years per term. In the United States, unlike in other democratic great powers, national elections have been held even in wartime.

What is more, again unlike in other democratic great powers, the president is the commander-in-chief and is directly elected by the people of the entire country. Remarkably, no US president who was in office when the United States intervened on a large scale in a twentieth-century war was still in office four years after the decision for intervention. That interpretation, with the rhetorical question to which it leads, is unduly cynical.

There is little reason to doubt that presidents have meant what they have said in their pronouncements about fighting wars to create a more stable regional or world order conducive to American values and interests. It may be unrealistic, but it is not irrational, to pitch political purposes at a high level. The last chapter in this volume is also on the United States and takes readers from the twentieth century into the twenty-first century. James Kurth notes many of the ways in which the recent past has been an era of transformations.

He focuses on two that are of the greatest importance for US military strategy. These post-modern phenomena have two major implications for US strategy. The second and more specific implication, highlighted by Kurth, is the increased sensitivity to American casualties in war. The sort of strategic behavior that Andrew Lambert sees in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century is no anomaly.

To be sure, Kurth notes that in the high-stakes wars of the past—the American Civil War and World War II, above all—the American people, like the British in World War I and World War II, were willing to accept correspondingly high casualties and, more generally, have shown passionate ferocity in their attachment to the military effort. Probing forward on the question of the political rationality of liberaldemocratic governments in their strategic behavior, Kurth lays out two major lines of thought. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has made a transition to a method of waging war that features the use of high-technology weaponry in ways that have kept American casualties unprecedentedly low.

The result has been a remarkable series of quick victories, at minimal human cost to Americans: in the Gulf War of , the Kosovo War of , and in the Afghan campaign after the terrorist attack of September He goes on to analyze specific theaters where the US military services can or cannot have realistic prospects of winning with high technology and low casualties.

Kurth also provides food for thought on how the relatively weak may become relatively strong by exploiting for themselves the RMA technolog ical opportunity. Historically, the powers who in the short run were quickest to gain a lead in the new technologies often met their match in the long run. If and when the current RMA spreads to some other country and that country ends up in violent conflict with the United States, the mastery of interaction that the US military displayed in the wars of — will likely come under serious challenge. Kurth identifies the most likely challenger as China.

It is perhaps fitting to forecast that the country whose strategic culture was shaped by Sun Tzu might ultimately be the country that goes the furthest with information technology in warfare in the twenty-first century. After all, Sun Tzu was, arguably, the first known theorist to suggest that war was a contest of information.

[Read book] Strategic Logic and Political Rationality: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel

It is much more likely to be a Clausewitzian contest of wills, a war full of friction, uncertainty, and the play of chance. In any such war between advanced states, and indeed in other conflicts, including the current war against that strange non-state actor al-Qaeda, strategic logic in all its complexity will be at work. Political rationality, military interaction, and primordial passion will ebb and flow, combining, separating, and recombining. The side that better handles and harmonizes these basic elements of strategic logic will be the side whose political purpose prevails in the end, though at what culminating point and at what cost one cannot predict.

Kaiser Sports and war have many obvious similarities, not least because many cultures— from medieval Europe to the tribes of the North American plains—have blurred the distinctions between them. Both involve winning and losing, both settle disputes, and both arouse the same emotions of fear, excitement, euphoria, and shame.

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Discussions of war rely heavily upon metaphors from sport, and vice versa. Differences are, however, equally critical. Sports are a closely regulated competition that take place according to complex rules kept by neutral officials. Such rules are designed to level the playing field—a complete contrast to war, where both sides seek superiority of all kinds. Athletic contests take place within specified limits of time and space, while wars do not.


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  8. Elements of physical danger, while certainly present in sport, are generally kept within bounds. Most important of all, sports take place largely for their own sake, while war, as Clausewitz tells us, aims at a broader political objective. In war, victory on the battlefield is only a means; in sports, victory is the end, whether defined with regard to one game, or a long series of games that make up a season. Even at the highest levels of analysis, however, similarities between war and sport abound.

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    Proceeding from the highest levels to the lowest, I shall explore some of the more telling analogies between these two realms. First, at the policy level, we shall look at the tension in both sport and war between long-term and short-term goals, an issue that raises problems of innovation, cost, and even when to fight.

    Dr Gil Merom - The University of Sydney

    And, lastly, we shall look at the similar demands that sports and war make upon individuals, and how, in both cases, competitors can cope with these demands and even turn them to their advantage. Victory is the primary goal of sport, but it is not the only one. Modern professional sports seek profit as well as victory, and we shall find that the two goals can often conflict. In addition, sports, like war, often force commanders to assign greater or lesser importance to individual campaigns, or even wars, and to distribute their effort accordingly.

    Lastly, neither sports nor war ever stand still, and teams, like nations and military services, must innovate to remain victorious.

    Bradford A. Lee’s ‘Strategic Logic and Political Rationality’

    They experience some of the same difficulties in doing so. Money, in modern team sports, is both one of the objects of the ownership and the tool that enables teams to win. Professional American baseball now faces, and not for the first time, a situation in which about half of its teams do not have the resources to buy a winning set of ball players in an increasingly free market.

    Although the press frequently portrays this situation as a consequence of free agency, richer teams have always enjoyed an advantage, and from to the late s the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Braves, and St Louis Browns had even less chance of winning a pennant than teams like the Montreal Expos or Pittsburgh Pirates do today. During the past ten years, several teams, including the San Diego Padres, the Florida Marlins, and the Chicago White Sox, have chosen to forego victory in the short and medium term in exchange for higher profits and unloaded some of the more expensive players on their roster.

    This step was especially striking in the case of the Marlins, who sold off their team after winning the World Series. While international politics and war may not offer exact analogies to this phenomenon, teams that forego attempts at total victory are similar, in some respects, to nations that insist upon proclaiming goals that they lack either the will or the resources to achieve, or to smaller nations who give up some of their independence in exchange for security provided by a powerful ally. The difficult relationship of battles to campaigns and wars plays an enormous part in sport, as well as war.

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    In almost every American sport, the use of ever-increasing rounds of playoffs to determine the national champion at the end of the season has inevitably diminished the intensity of competition during the regular season—a campaign that it is no longer necessary to win. Games, like battles, have different levels of significance, and both generals and coaches understand this and act accordingly.

    Sometimes even an entire season has to be sacrificed for the sake of the future. They were on their way to a second one in when Russell sprained his ankle during the final playoff series against the St Louis Hawks.