War is Politics
weekend President Bush said, in response to questions about when
the war in Afghanistan might be over, that he would stay in touch
with Tommy Franks and other military commanders and declare victory
the moment the military experts said the task was done and not
one moment sooner. In so doing he reinforced an utterly artificial
distinction between military and political objectives that makes
no sense and makes developing, defining and understanding objectives
have little doubt that Dubya understands full well that he, not
Tommy Franks or some other general, is commander-in-chief and the
final arbiter on military decisions. But he is buying into a distinction
between political and military objectives and decisions that has
little warrant in reality.
von Clausewitz, the Prussian theorist of war in the 19th century,
explained the matter best, declaring that war is politics carried
out by other means. (He didn't necessarily endorse the obverse,
that politics is war carried out by other means, though he left
the possibility dangling for those who cared to entertain it.)
this meant in practice, and still means, is that beyond the strictly
tactical there's a guy with a machine gun on the next hill and
we need to take him out it makes little or no sense to proclaim
a strict delineation between military and political objectives.
Whether widely recognized or not, every war, every conflict, has
political objectives. It can be challenging to sort out the various,
sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by various players in large
complex organizations not to mention the often-secret agendas
some of those with influence invariably pursue. But conflict at least conflict pursued at the level of nation-states always
has both military and political objectives.
conservatives who supported the Vietnam War, or at least those objectives
they wished it would pursue, tended to lose sight of this fact at
the time. Responding to Lyndon Johnson's micro-management of the
war which at times was genuinely egregious and often foolish they urged that the military be unleashed. If only the military
professionals were allowed to do their job without meddling by politicians,
they fondly believed, victory in Vietnam would have been forthcoming
in months if not in weeks.
is just enough truth in some of this to keep the idea of a clear-line
distinction alive. From what I can tell from reading and talking
to veterans, the U.S. military, despite numerous problems, was the
superior military force in Vietnam. Numerous successful tactical
operations were carried out and examples of individual courage,
ingenuity and fierceness in battle abound.
the tactical, however, it makes little sense to speak of victory
or defeat in Vietnam or anywhere without a context of political
objectives. It might not be fashionable to speak openly about political
objectives. The most fascinating characteristic of the current American
empire is that its keepers constantly deny that it is an empire
at all. One of the ways they keep the illusion alive is to avoid
talking about political objectives.
WITHOUT POLITICAL OBJECTIVES?
in this conflict I referenced a
piece on Slate.com by Anne Applebaum, a keen observer based
in London. She noted that a former UN diplomat told her the experience
in Bosnia and Kosovo should suggest to Western leaders the dictum:
"Politics first," meaning that "outsiders intruding on the affairs
of another country ought first to sort out what political goals
they want to achieve and only make use of force as a supplement
to political dialogue."
Bush has been notably reticent in this respect. If he has political
goals beyond "rooting out evil," "getting Osama dead or alive, it
doesn't matter," and letting states who harbor terrorists know they're
either with us or against us, he has not been eager to share them
with the American people. Most people, who have little desire to
wrestle with complex actions and consequences, have not complained.
It seems enough to be assured that things are being blown up and
the president remains confident that sooner or later we'll get that
some ways this reluctance to spell out political goals can be used
for political advantage. When goals and objectives are fuzzy, almost
any incident can be spun to show we are succeeding, and although
the fight isn't over yet, we are on the road to victory.
seen a great deal of crowing over the reasonably swift military
victories in Afghanistan neocons and others declaring that all
the naysayers and skeptics who reminded us of the history of great
powers losing their way in Afghanistan, the impenetrability of the
caves and all, were just party-pooping ignoramuses. While some critics and war enthusiasts, let us not forget did make some unfortunate
predictions about how difficult it would be and (in the neocons'
case) how wimpy the administration war plan was, it is also difficult
to argue, despite military triumphs on the tactical level, that
the political objectives (insofar as they can be teased out) of
the administration have been accomplished.
Taliban, always shaky, was undermined and thrown out of power fairly
quickly, by mostly military means. But nobody had contended that
it was the Taliban itself that had undertaken the 9/11 terrorist
attacks that were the reason for the retaliation in the first place.
The point of the intervention was to get Osama bin Laden and his
terrorist network. A month and more after the fall of the Taliban
that objective still hasn't been accomplished.
if bin Laden is definitively captured or killed, questions will
remain about the effectiveness of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Will new leaders step in fairly quickly? Insofar as it is a relatively
decentralized network, might it turn out to be more dangerous, less
predictable, more violent without some sort of central leadership?
Will the attacks on Afghanistan and the bin Laden network inspire
future terrorist organizing and action that might not become apparent
for months or years?
whatever might be said about military effectiveness and a great
deal that's justifiable can be said from the standpoint of exacting
justice or crippling al-Qaida, it is still impossible to say whether
the operation has been a success. Beyond the tactical and the technical
aspects, war is waged to achieve political objectives. Even letting
the world know that the United States has a mighty military and
has the will to use it arguably a worthy political goal for an
administration following Clinton is less impressive when you
consider the numbers.
Pentagon's budget is 23 times as large as the combined spending
of the seven countries traditionally identified as state sponsors
or terrorism Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria.
To achieve a tactical military victory when the odds are so skewed
is not overly impressive and might be downright underwhelming
to some ambitious terrorist planning an attack even now.
don't know whether President Bush's declaration that he will let
the military authorities decide when enough is enough in Afghanistan
so the decision will have no political taint to it is disingenuous
or just too clever. If it is disingenuous if Dubya really believes
there's a bright line between military and political objectives then that's too bad. The American people should have leaders
who are more realistic and are willing to discuss matters of life
and death realistically.
it might not be all that disingenuous. As indicated, a war without
clear objectives and enemies might not be all that effective at
wiping out or even reducing terrorism (and over the long haul might
even lead to increased terrorism). But it might just be perfect
at enhancing the role of the state in American life and of the president
in American politics. If that is the real goal of the current conflict,
the Bushies might just be doing the clever thing by keeping the
objectives so lofty and fuzzy as to be indefinable.
contribution of $50 or more gets you a copy of Ronald Radosh's out-of-print
classic study of the Old Right conservatives, Prophets on the
Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Send
520 South Murphy Avenue #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form