Last 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 triply difficult.
I 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.
It was Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian theorist of war in the 19th century, who 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.)
What 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.
THE VIETNAM FORGETTING
American 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.
There 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.
Beyond 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.
WHY FIGHT WITHOUT POLITICAL OBJECTIVES?
Early 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.”
President 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 rascal Osama.
In 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.
CAN’T HIDE THE PROBLEMS
We’ve 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.
The 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.
Even 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?
So 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.
The 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.
STEP INTO REALITY
I 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.
However, 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.