“The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.”
Henry Kissinger’s beautifully concise summation of asymmetric warfare captures something essential about the political conflict we’re witnessing between President Trump and his adversaries, especially his adversaries in the mainstream news media. Consider Kissinger’s remark in its original context, a long essay for Foreign Affairs in 1969, “The Viet Nam Negotiations”:
The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had another advantage, which they used skillfully. American ‘victories’ were empty unless they laid the basis for an eventual withdrawal. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, fighting in their own country, needed merely to keep in being forces sufficiently strong to dominate the population after the United States tired of the war. We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their main forces the way a bullfighter uses his cape — to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance.
Whatever one’s view of Trump, he has mastered the art of fighting battles on his own terms. He doesn’t want to fight the battle at all; he would prefer that everyone simply agree with him. But the guerrilla commander doesn’t have the option of not fighting; and since he can’t win on a conventional battlefield, he must create a never-ending series of annoyances and problems and small disasters for the enemy.
A month ago, Trump saw an opportunity to create such a problem, and he took it. “Terrible!” began his infamous tweet. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Then this: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
The next day’s New York Times had already dismissed the claim as basically preposterous in its print-edition headline: “With No Proof, Trump Claims Obama Tapped.” And the day after that, the Times story headlined “Conspiracy Theory’s Journey From Talk Radio to Oval Office” laughed off Trump’s accusation as a bizarre fiction: an “unsubstantiated allegation” based on a “conspiratorial rant,” the latest in a succession of “incendiary assertions based on shreds of suspicion,” each setting off a “firestorm with no proof.”
Well, okay. In a sense, it’s hard to disagree. Obama didn’t have Trump’s phones “tapped” — at least not in the sense of the old James Bond movies, in which Bond, settling into his hotel room, would unscrew the mouthpiece of the phone receiver and coolly remove a tiny listening device.
So let’s go with the Times and assume nobody’s phone was tapped. And yet here we are, a month later, talking about the Obama administration’s surveillance of the Trump transition team. Today’s coverage in the Times — with the online headline “Susan Rice, Ex-National Security Adviser, Now in Spotlight in Surveillance Debate” — strikes a rather more serious tone than its coverage did a month ago.
Trump’s phone-tap tweets were reckless, to be sure. But they weren’t merely reckless. By my lights it appears there was just enough truth behind them to start a protracted fight about the Obama administration’s surveillance of Trump transition officials. And all Trump has to do in order to win that fight is not lose. He doesn’t, in other words, have to prove that Obama had phones tapped in Trump Tower or that Obama ordered some J. Edgar Hoover-type of surveillance on Trump or his associates. All he has to do is start a fight that damages his enemies and drives them to psychological exhaustion, and he wins. So far, he is winning. His enemies have spent weeks draining their energies on a subject of his choice, not theirs, and they are badly bruised from the ordeal.
Of course, an analogy is only an analogy. That Trump bears some conceptual relationship with the North Vietnamese guerrilla warriors of the 1950s and 1960s does not mean that Trump will win the way they won. Trump’s methods may be his unmaking. But — switching to Kissinger’s bull metaphor — Trump’s critics in the media and elsewhere should try to look at something other than the bullfighter’s cape and so avoid lunging in areas of marginal political importance.