Well before the government shutdown had begun, I knew it was a supremely stupid idea and a fight that would gain nothing for Republicans and the Tea Party (other than further damage of their image in the American people’s eyes), and I warned my friends on Facebook who thought it was a good idea they were wrong.
On October 11th, after 10 days of the shutdown, CDN published my article explaining, in detail, why the government shutdown was a foolish idea, why there was nothing to be gained from it, why it was impossible to repeal or defund Obamacare while Obama is still wielding a veto pen (and a 55-seat Senate majority), and why Republicans need to first win the argument, then win the vote, and only then make policy. I also predicted Republicans would eventually cave in.
I was right, and those who argued otherwise, including Tea Partiers, were dead wrong. But another man had predicted Republicans’ and Tea Partiers’ defeat much earlier – in fact, over 2,500 years ago. His name is Sun Tzu.
Yes, that Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general and strategist who authored the world’s first military treatise, the Art of War, a masterpiece that inspired leaders as diverse as Emperor Qinshi Huangdi, Oda Nobunaga, Togo Heihachiro, Douglas MacArthur, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf.
Contained in this succint treatise that would fit on 13 pages of A4 paper today are the keys to victory in all competitive endeavors – war, business, sports… and politics.
And this masterwork, completed sometime in the 6th century or the early 5th century BC, explains nicely why various battles and wars throughout history have ended they way they have. Including Republicans’ and Tea Partiers’ recent Obamacare debacle.
Basically, in virtually every case in history, the losing side ignored at least one, if not more, of Sun Tzu’s teachings, or the winning side successfully utilized the principles he taught.
In this case, we can see that going into the government shutdown battle, Republicans and Tea Partiers cavalierly disregarded not one, not two, but SEVERAL of Master Sun’s teachings, to their detriment.
Sun Tzu wrote:
“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” – Chapter XII, verse 17
“Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” – ch. III, v. 17
“There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.” – ch. VIII, v. 3
Yet, Republicans started a battle they never had any chance of winning, a battle they were doomed to lose, at the wrong time and the wrong place against a much stronger, well-entrenched enemy, a battle from which there was nothing to be gained.
Intelligent people, such as Dr. Charles Krauthammer and this writer, warned Republicans even before the shutdown that there was no way they could’ve defunded Obamacare from one house of Congress, because the Senate would never pass, and Obama would never sign into law, a bill or resolution defunding his sole legislative “achievement” – so there was no way they’d agree to doing so even if the shutdown took place – which it did, and Obama still didn’t agree to defund Obamacare.
Indeed, Obama and the Democrats, not Republicans, were the only side that could’ve gained anything from the shutdown – an opportunity to portray Republicans as extremists who want to send the country into havoc.
Sun Tzu wrote:
“The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.
(1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.
The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.” – Ch. I, v. 3-4.
These aqre the five constant factors governing warfare and determining who wins and loses. It is no coincidence that the first factor Sun Tzu lists is “Moral Law” – or, as translated by Samuel Griffith (I’m otherwise quoting the Lionel Giles translation here), “Moral Influence” – in other words, popular support, i.e. moral support from the general populace.
This is a crucial factor for victory in virtually every war, even for dictatorships – this is why America had to withdraw ignominiously from Vietnam and Iraq and is now withdrawing from Afghanistan – because the American people no longer support these wars. Even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, under popular (and financial) pressure, had to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of fruitless fighting.
Popular support is even more important for those fighting in the political arena, especially in democratic countries (i.e. those with democratically-elected governments). If Republicans want to ever retake the Senate and the White House, let alone enact their policies, they must enjoy thef support of a majority of Americans.
Yet, by starting the government shutdown, Republicans and Tea Partiers have only alienated large swathes of the American electorate, already largely unfriendly to them in 2012. Most Americans do oppose Obamacare in principle – but not to the point they want the federal government to shut down.
Moreover, according to Gallup, a significant majority of Americans wants Republicans and Democrats to compromise (yes, that dreaded c-word), and according to another poll (not by Gallup), 51% of Americans say Republicans should just “get over the fact that Obamacare is the law.” Also, according to Gallup polling, by far the biggest criticism levied by most Americans (and a plurality of Republicans) against the GOP is that it is too inflexible and too unwilling to compromise.
Sun Tzu wrote:
“If the enemy occupies high ground, do not attack him; with his back resting on hills, do not oppose him.” – ch. VII, v. 26 in the Griffith translation
Yet, Republicans have attacked a much stronger enemy who was occupying high ground – a President Obama wielding a veto pen and controlling the whole executive branch and a 55-seat Senate majority. In addition, the public opinion sided mostly with Obama on the government shutdown, even though it does not approve of Obamacare itself. Even before the shutdown, Obama had approval ratings much better than those of Congressional Republicans and the Tea Party, above 40%. Today, Obama still has approval ratings above 40% – at 43% according to Gallup. While these ratings are nothing to boast about (his disapproval ratings vary from the high forties to the low fifties), they are still way better than those of Congressional Republicans, their leaders, and the Tea Party.
Republicans made the same foolish mistake they made in 1995: they tried to implement a radical change (in this case, repeal or defunding of a newly-enacted major law) while controlling only the Congress, and without a veto-proof majority, while a Democratic president wielded a veto pen. This time the mistake was all the more foolish, because Republicans controlled only one chamber of Congress.
Republicans were hardly the first “army” to attack an enemy occupying high ground. The Union Army did so in 1862 at Fredericksburg and the Confederate Army at Gettysburg in 1863. That latter battle arguably, in the long run, cost the Confederates the war. The Confederacy is no more any longer. The same could very well happen to the GOP.
Sun Tzu wrote:
“When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. ” – ch. X, v. 16.
“If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, then will be practically useless. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless.
Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.
If in training soldiers commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well-disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad.
If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.” – ch. IX, v. 42-45.
“When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.
When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on meeting the enemy give battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment, before the commander-in-chief can tell whether or not he is in a position to fight, the result is ruin.
When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.” – ch. X, v. 16-18.
Clearly a big factor in Speaker Boehner’s and Leader McConnell’s defeat was the large, undisciplined, insubordinate contingent of radical Republicans (Tea Party Republicans) in Congress, led by Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in the Senate and by Congressmen Raul Labrador, Justin Amash, and Mick Mulvaney in the House. With soldiers like that, no military commander, not even Sun Tzu, would’ve been able to win any battle.
These Congressmen and Senators – most of them very young and very inexperienced (Cruz has been in the Senate only since January, Paul since 2011) – are arrogant, overconfident, and very aggressive in their demands. Yet, despite their junior status, they have been able to hold the GOP Congressional Leadership hostage due to their large numbers. So in the Republican “Army”, the common soldiers are too strong and the officers are too weak. There is disunity in Republican ranks. The commanding generals – J0hn Boehner and Mitch McConnell – are weak and without authority within their contingents.
That is so because they – at least until recently – have failed to keep their troops “under control by means of iron discipline”, which, according to Sun Tzu, is “the certain road to victory.” They have failed to insist on the GOP’s leadership’s orders being enforced with stern discipline; they have failed, until recently, to punish those radical Republicans who aren’t team players, insist on unattainable non-negotiable demands, disrupt the work of the Congress, and don’t support the party’s agenda.
In January, the GOP House Caucus removed four such insubordinate, disruptive Republicans (including Justin Amash) from key committees. Conservative media hysterically called it a purge; in fact, it was a minor and long overdue correction. A purge would’ve meant removing all insubordinate and disruptive Congressmen from all key committees. Likewise, Mitch McConnell has only now belatedly begun to fight back against pseudo-conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, the “Club for Growth”, and FreedomWorks by denying NRSC contracts to companies that also do business with these groups. These radical organizations claim to be conservative, but in reality, they only serve to get more Democrats elected and to advance their agenda by targeting mainstream-but-not-radical Republicans whom they don’t consider “pure enough” and by ensuring that totally unelectable fringe candidates (like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Ken Buck) win GOP primaries and then lose general elections.
And yet, it was not until this month that McConnell began taking action against these groups.
One’s own soldiers must be treated humanely, but also kept under control by means of iron discipline, as Sun Tzu wrote.
Sun Tzu wrote:
“Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. (…) Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” – ch. IV, v. 1-2 and 15
Yet, Republicans started a battle before devising any plan to win it. They went into battle without any plan to win. Like all other vanquished armies in history, they first fought and then sought victory – exactly the wrong order.
Had Republicans and Tea Partiers been wise people, they would’ve first devised a plan for victory, then would’ve created the conditions for triumph (which would necessarily mean retaking the Senate and the WH), and only then would’ve fought.
Thus you can see why Republicans lost – and were doomed to lose – the government shutdown battle against Obama, and how Sun Tzu predicted their defeat over 2,500 years ago. Republicans and Tea Partiers will continue to suffer further defeats if they continue to recklessly ignore Sun Tzu’s wise advice.
Let Master Sun have the last word here, across 2,500 years of time:
“The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:–let such a one be dismissed!”