Monday, March 28, 2011

Strategizing Without Overthinking

Tom Ricks is continuing to emphasize a nation's limited ability to achieve strategic clarity before going to war:
These notes I get from military officers demanding clarity of goals and stated strategic purposes puzzle me. The nature of war is ambiguity and uncertainty. I worry that such demands are really a fancy form of shirking.
Ricks believes that the intervention was a necessary and appropriate for humanitarian reasons. If you accept, as he does, that but for President Obama's decision to proceed with the intervention "we would indeed probably now be looking at Benghazi as [President Obama's] Srebrenica", you can state that your goal is to stop that from happening and that, although you haven't given much thought to how you might extricate the U.S. military after the intervention, the cause is sufficiently urgent to justify the risk and expense of a long-term military commitment. But you should be prepared to explain either how you anticipate extricating the military from its commitment or that it's an open-ended military commitment.

The President has, in my opinion somewhat belatedly, spoken on the intervention:
The U.S. "exit strategy" as such appears to be to try to hand off as much responsibility as possible for the continued military intervention to "our NATO allies", which seems to translate into Britain and France. The President states that we're "offering support to the Libyan opposition"; but that appears to be an understatement. It isn't clear to me what degree of regime change is going to end the intervention, but it does seem clear that the present goal is to send a very clear message that it won't end while Qaddafi remains in power.

Juan Cole, a proponent of the intervention, has penned an "open letter to the left" that overlooks, in my opinion, both the fundamental reasons to be concerned about the commitment and that those concerns should not be presumed to be borne of political ideology or to be predicated upon anything other than a reasonable analysis of the situation, its knowns and unknowns.
Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)

2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).

3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.
Cole admits that almost nobody fits into his first category. The question thus becomes, as Scott Lemiux suggests, how representative are his second and third categories and why no mention of other possibilities? You can reject the notion that this is somehow an exercise in imperialism - you can even reject the concept that U.S. imperialism would be a bad thing - and accept that some problems can be addressed, if imperfectly, through military force, while nonetheless questioning the wisdom of a specific military venture. As John Casey notes, Juan Cole supported the war in Iraq. The circumstances of the action in Libya and the magnitude of the intervention to date are markedly different than those the U.S. faced in deciding whether to enter the Iraq War, but between the underestimated difficulty of that war and the duration and cost of occupation, it's not unreasonable to worry about getting sucked into something much more complicated than what was initially suggested as a planned "no fly zone".

In retrospect, while looking at the same facts, it's possible to argue that George H.W. Bush's decision to end the first Gulf War while leaving Hussein in power was either one of the most cowardly acts of a modern President or one of the most insightful. You can take the position that to depose Hussein would have split the coalition and, although Hussein's defeat would have been inevitable, would have required a massive investment of money, cost a lot of lives, and would have required a lengthy military occupation. Actually, that's the position that George H.W. Bush's administration took - and while you can argue "It still would have been worth it," on the whole they were correct. You can also argue that his approach - supposedly being duped into letting Hussein militarily crush a Shiite uprising, then trying to lock Hussein in a box while his country suffered - created a great deal of human suffering while effectively shifting responsibility for "finishing the job" to a future President. There's truth in that critique, as well. It's not a phenomenon unique to the Presidency, but sometimes no matter what choice you make "you can't win". (And "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.")

Some advocates of intervention make an assertion that, between the improvement in Qaddafi's military position, his rhetoric about taking revenge against those who rose against him, and now-documented facts about his military strategy (e.g., indiscriminately shelling the occupants of rebel-held cities) we were on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. That the rapid shift of facts on the ground necessitated immediate action. That, unlike situations like Rwanda in which air strikes would have been useless to stop the violence and a full understanding of the situation is said to have come too late for a meaningful intervention, air strikes actually could stop the advances of Qaddafi's forces and stop the shelling of and potential slaughter in major civilian centers. I expect that will be the case the President lays out tomorrow. I also expect that the delay in the President's making a speech is that he didn't want to address the public before there was a firm plan for a hand-off of responsibility for the continued intervention, or perhaps with the hand-off already a fait accompli.

Juan Cole writes,
Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited (it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.
Let's assume that at the end of 90 days Qaddafi is out of power and neither his successor nor the rebel factions are actively engaged in warfare. How is military occupation avoided? If the country remains divided, would you not expect the national government to at some point seek to unify it? How will reunification occur, and why should we expect in the absence of any form of occupation that it will be peaceful? Why should we not be concerned that each side will violently purge its territory of anybody it believes is loyal to the other side? If those questions cannot be answered, Cole is with Ricks - the situation was urgent enough to intervene without having an exit plan - but he's using a theoretical 90-day time table to avoid admitting the possibility that the incursion could turn out to be much more complicated and much more long-term than NATO hopes. While it's true that the worst-case scenarios almost never come true, on the whole it seems to me that the "candy and flowers" faction doesn't fare much better. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.


  1. Nice post. A lot of people were of one mind on Cole's rather disappointing analysis.

  2. The Tom Ricks column is incomprehensible. Ricks has been around the military for decades and either learned nothing from his experiences or is being disingenuous about what he has learned.

    The nature of war isn't "ambiguity and uncertainty" it is death and destruction. How dare he call it “shirking” when military leaders say that they want to know why we are killing people and to what ends they are supposed to be laboring.

    Although I understand the President’s desire to not sit idly by while people are killed – I still don’t understand why we are intervening one place (Libya) and not another (for example, Zimbabwe).



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