Makes Me Mad…”Objectives of the Mission”

Makes Me Mad… short comments on news, punditry or other nuggets of conventional wisdom make me mad enough to stop hollering at the radio/tv/newspaper/screen and write.

Cross-Posted at the CSCC Blog.

I don’t know if the military operations in Libya is a good idea or not.  But in favor or against, I wish the conventional wisdom would give up on the mania over “mission objectives” or “end game.”  This is offered up as serious critique of Obama’s decision to start a new war.   We either see this as a concern or criticism from politicians, or embedded in news articles without any attribution which reinforces the sense that it is an unquestionably valid point.

Here is my objection: wars are messy, complex events.  The mania over a defined mission is some sort of collective learned response to Viet Nam.  That war is commonly seen as a mistake because it went on too long and their was mission drift from supporting the South Vietnamese government (which we either directly or indirectly installed.  Sorry, no time to make myself a SE Asia expert this morning).  Hence, since then, Presidents, congressional leaders, and paid pundits want every conflict or war defined in terms of “mission objectives” and “end games.”  As if this is a board game or a shopping list with discrete boxes we can tick off and then “go home.”

Here are some US-led or US-involved military missions that I would like to know what the “mission objectives” are which, once we ding the bell and get the gold star, we can imagine withdrawing and no longer being involved.

The Korean peninsula

The “War on Drugs” in South and Central America

Afghanistan (did it start in 1979 or 2003?)


The Global War on Terror

Patrolling the Red Sea against Pirates


Military/Intelligence Drone operations in Yemen, Pakistan and who knows where else?

My point?  As Tolstoy described it in War and Peace, and I am paraphrasing, war is only clear when seen from the lofty armchair of those not involved.  On the ground it is fog, murk, rattle, and crash.  It is a foolish to act as if there are clean and discrete wars on the one hand and murky, protracted ones with unknowable, uncertain outcomes down the road.  They are all murky, liable to be long, and chock full of uncertainty.

I wish our public conversation could start at that point instead of the public relations blitz that this war is going to be different.  Maybe, maybe, we could then have a more honest conversation about what our gold and blood are paying for.


Libya & US

Libya and the United States:
What Happens When Sound Bites Don’t Work

John Peeler

One of the fascinating back stories of the U.S. response to the Libyan crisis is how it’s exposed fundamental splits on both Right and Left in this country.

Stereotypically, we expect conservatives to favor war and liberals to oppose it, but we’ve known at least since Vietnam how simplistic that is. In the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, we’ve certainly seen liberals split between supporters (Hillary Clinton, for example) and opponents (Barack Obama, for example) of the Iraq invasion. But conservatives have, with few exceptions (Ron Paul, for example) lined up solidly in favor of a muscular, militaristic response to world problems.

The revolt in Libya, the latest in the revolutionary wave in the Arab world, has posed the dilemma with particular sharpness because it is deceptively easy for Americans to agree that removing Qaddafi would be a good thing. An absolute dictator for over forty years, he has been reliably shown to have been a sponsor of terrorist attacks (most notably the bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland).

We now have the emergence of a consistent, articulate conservative opposition to U.S. intervention in Libya, best exemplified by George Will (Washington Post, March 8, 2011), who raises no less than sixteen hard questions for those who advocate intervention. And this broadside comes in the wake of his declaration of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, last year (see my previous piece on this at Will is articulating what may be termed a traditional, or “paleo-conservative” viewpoint, consistently skeptical toward risky enterprises.

Standing opposed to Will and the paleo-conservatives are a great many neo-conservatives. Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, March 4, 2011) strongly advocates intervention to promote Qaddafi’s fall, and argues that the growing number of those who agree with him is testament to George W. Bush’s wisdom in declaring the “Bush Doctrine,” committing the U.S. to forceful promotion of democracy around the world.

On the liberal side we have a similar split. Senator John Kerry came out for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya (Washington Post, March 4, 2011), while Wesley Clark (Washington Post, March 11, 2011) argued that Libya is not central enough for U.S. interests to warrant intervention. Ross Douthat (New York Times, March 13, 2011) urges that we pay attention to the lessons of the Iraq intervention:

In reality, there are lessons from our years of failure in Iraq that can be applied to an air war over Libya as easily as to a full-scale invasion or counterinsurgency. Indeed, they can be applied to any intervention — however limited its aims, multilateral its means, and competent its commanders.
One is that the United States shouldn’t go to war unless it has a plan not only for the initial military action, but also for the day afterward, and the day after that. Another is that the United States shouldn’t go to war without a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.

Here Douthat is essentially echoing Will.

No wonder the hyper-cautious Obama is moving as if he were in a minefield that’s been covered with grease. Anything he does (including nothing) will elicit ferocious criticism from both opponents and supporters.

From what I read, he seems to be resisting a no-fly zone or other intervention, on grounds that real revolutions must win on their own. That’s a laudable position, and perhaps based on actual awareness of the decidedly mixed results of U.S. interventions in the past. An invasion on the Iraq model would bring down Qaddafi, but we could not guarantee a result we would like even if a democracy emerged (see contemporary Iraq). A careful and limited intervention in Libya might help bring down Qaddafi, but would not be able to assure that the resultant regime would be to our liking. Complete non-intervention would likely assure Qaddafi’s continuation in power, even though it seems clear that most of the people want him gone.

I arrive at the hesitant and ambivalent conclusion that we should avoid intervening publicly in Libya, because that would only burden the resultant regime with the perception of being our creation and puppet. But I hope that Obama is sending covert help, and I hope he can keep it covert. Ever since Reagan and the Contras, our leaders have had a habit of overtly bragging about what they’re doing “covertly.” This doesn’t do the beneficiaries any good. To take Don Rumsfeld’s name in vain, we need a few more “unknown unknowns.”