Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is there anything more strategically idiotic than "we're at war, so we must fight and win"?

This isn't exactly new ground, but I'm reminded of the rationality-annihilating centrality-of-victory types by a line from Elliott Abrams' embarrassing defense of Dick Cheney in a Foreign Policy roundtable on the former VP.
Cheney fervently believed that America was at war after 9/11, and this belief led him to the conclusion that America must fight and win.
"Fight and win," eh? Ok, sure, let's fight and win. But fight against whom? To win what? What is winning, exactly, in this context? Is it the destruction of every al-Qaeda terrorist? The democratization of the Middle East? The elimination of every possible threat to American security? I'd love to see the campaign plan for this "war," or at least for someone to outline desired end-states.

For a good long while in history, the general consensus held that destruction of the enemy's main force was the sure path to victory in war. There are a million good reasons that Clausewitz and Jomini and Napoleon and Mahan alike believed this, and I'm not going to recount them all here. (It's also worth remembering that each one of those dudes would've snickered and turned up his nose at the idea that any interaction the world's foremost power had with a band of violent criminals from the extremist fringe could constitute "war.") But one needs to try to understand that view in its historical and circumstantial context: it's not a timeless law of war, but rather a reality of the characteristically limited nature of war in their era. Routing the enemy in the field didn't constitute victory on its own merits, but was rather so closely tied to the political change that secured actual victory (accomplishment of policy objectives) as to be nearly indistinguishable. 

Everyone knows the old saw about winning a battle but losing the war, right? The point of that maxim is that tactical decision doesn't always translate into operational or strategic success. This is so obvious and widely understood as to barely merit comment. Why does it so often happen, then, that politicians and military leaders alike express sentiments like the one from Abrams cited above? Why do so many people fail to understand that military victory, however defined (and you'll have a hell of a hard time defining it for me in a "war" against a phenomenon of political violence), is essentially meaningless unless it forces political-strategic decision?

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