WASHINGTON, March 16, 2013 ― Ever since Rand Paul’s famous filibuster and now his stunning victory at the CPAC straw poll, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about America’s policy regime and the kind of people we have in power. There’s no question that “Rand is right,” but just how did a nation of technocrats and Ivy League experts go astray in the first place? Have we become so “smart” with our “smart power” and “smart bombs” fired from “smart platforms” that we have neglected common sense and basic historical lessons?
Ask yourself: Does it really take decades of experience to develop policy for the United States of America these days? Is it necessary to have more degrees than a thermometer to teach at a 21st century war college or to be a member of the President’s National Security Council? Do you need to have a Mensa intelligence to serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee? As the two-fold pressures of a rapidly expanding global war on terror and an imploding U.S. economy plague the nation, Americans are increasingly led to believe that bigger problems call for bigger experts.
When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was still facing confirmation hearings not more than a few weeks ago, conservatives lambasted him over what was termed a “disturbing” lack of experience and a seemingly incompetent view of the world. While I don’t dispute that the top slots in American government should be staffed by only the best and brightest, I do question why some of Washington’s “top minds” – many of whom were educated in prestigious universities – ignore in their policymaking style some of the basic lessons of history taught at a public high school level of education.
While I recognize all too well that “history” let alone public education is highly politicized and subject to constant revision, when I was in high school some sixteen years ago I was taught five “rules of war” that policymakers and presidents since September 11, 2001 seem to have completely forgotten or never heard of in the first place:
Rule #1: Never fight a multiple front war. When I was in high school, the official study outline taught leaders like Napoleon and Hitler were so arrogantly consumed with aspirations of conquest that they made the fatal strategic mistake of biting off more than they could chew and divided their forces with multiple fronts. The lesson to be learned here was that if you’re absolutely bent on conquering the world, be sure to consider the logistics first.
Contrast that logic with the early days of America’s intervention in Afghanistan when the decision was made to begin a new conflict in Iraq (and presumably even Iran after that, had the war in Iraq gone differently). Despite concerns that opening another front in Iraq would potentially jeopardize efforts to defeat al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, our nation’s policymakers jumped right into Iraq and violated the multiple front rule in the quest to “drain the swamp.”
A decade later, when asked by Scott Pelly “In how many countries are we currently engaged in a shooting war?” then-SecDef Leon Panetta responded “I’ll have to stop and think about that, because you know, obviously we’re going after al Qaeda, wherever they’re at.”
When I was in high school, I was taught that fighting multiple fronts in diverse geographies was a recipe for disaster. Today? Washington seems to think there’s nothing wrong with fighting the whole world at once. There are no shortage of Republicans or Democrats for that matter who have a wishlist of countries they’d like to invade or drone strike next. Syria? Iran? North Korea? Who is America’s next target? Multiple wars are now the way of the 21st century.
Rule #2: Never fight a counterinsurgency campaign. Having been born in 1979 I was educated in the period that immediately followed the Vietnam War. The phrase “No More Vietnams” was a slogan regularly invoked whenever Washington even remotely considered sending military forces or advisers anywhere in the world. The lesson I learned in school was that if you go to war, go in with a clearly defined enemy and a winnable objective, not something open-ended like fighting against guerrillas or terrorists because the moral contest of winning hearts and minds is often too slippery to hold long. America fights wars to win them, not endless police actions to enforce stability.
The Vietnam War supposedly left the imprint on American minds that fighting “guys in black pajamas” doesn’t work too well for a military. The lesson learned was that the United States likes to know specifically who the enemy is and doesn’t fight wars against vaguely defined adversaries or threats that blend among civilian populations. The war on terror however completely ignores the lessons of Vietnam as our leaders effectively established in the days following 9/11 that anyone who is a terrorist or an insurgent anywhere would be a target of the United States.
Rule #3: Never let civilians in air conditioned rooms micromanage or select targets for the military. While the Constitution specifically puts military authority in civilian hands, when it comes to fighting a war the lesson I learned in high school was that civilians have the tendency to turn wars into quagmires either by injecting unrealistic political considerations into combat or by micromanaging everything that combat forces can and cannot do. Textbooks showed photographs of LBJ or McNamara hovering over sandbox dioramas of Vietnam and condemned how ridiculous the practice of White House vetting of targets was.
Today, the White House routinely approves hundreds, maybe even thousands of drone airstrikes all across the globe, not to mention intelligence operations and other complex matters. For some strange reason, few have any problem with this practice which runs counter to historical example.
Rule #4: Never place an excessive emphasis on tactical operations. There was a time when soundbytes from General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address to Congress were common knowledge. “War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision,” so goes the famous quote. “In war there is no substitute for victory.” You might have had to be extra discerning to identify this fourth rule from high school history class, but the idea is a nation should never commit to combat just for the sake of combat.
The logic works like this: If an F-15E Strike Eagle or EA-18G Growler is sortied on a suppression of enemy air defenses mission, the purpose is to knock off the radars so that other forces can enter the airspace and end the war swiftly either by destroying the means to fight or compelling political surrender, not for the sake of simply destroying the radar site. You don’t just destroy targets or persons for the sake of destroying or killing. Clausewitz wrote “tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat. Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war.”
Now maybe I missed something, but I’m finding it extremely hard to reconcile how we’ve spent more than ten years fighting a “war” that hasn’t actually been won. Today, policy is all about operations and technology but not about winning. It’s truly impressive that today we can send in a helicopter to drop off commandos while Predator drones circling above provide live feed for civilians watching with baited breath in Washington – but how do all these countless operations actually translate into decisively winning a war? The object of war is victory, not prolonged operations.
Rule #5: Never deplete the public treasury with war. This one should be a no brainer. Thousands of years of empires reduced to the ash heap of history brought us the lesson that you don’t go to war without first counting the cost. The Soviets – arguably the most quantitatively powerful military on the planet – invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and by 1989 no longer had the cash or willpower to sustain their deployment.
It comes as common sense that when nations go to war, the appropriate strategy is either to cut spending in other programs to budget for the cost of actual fighting or – unpopular as it may be – give citizens informed consent by proposing a tax increase ahead of a declaration of war. If voters understand the human and financial cost of war, then support for war goes hand in hand with a balanced budget.
Just how much have we spent in a decade of war? Some say as little as $1.4 trillion, others say as much as $5 trillion before it ends. No one can be sure, but the George W. Bush Administration took a perplexing approach to war by simultaneously cutting taxes and increasing government spending at the same time. While some of my neoconservative friends are defensively quick to invoke “supply side economics” as a knee jerk response, you don’t have to be an economics professor to know that tax cuts unaccompanied by government spending cuts are nothing more than inflationary deficit spending.
If the aim was to increase private wealth and put more money in the pockets of hardworking Americans, Republican neoconservatives should have recognized that a better approach would have been to reduce spending and reduce taxation so as to allow the market to direct the freed funds towards investment, capital creation and enhanced production. Duh.
Today there are many complex problems which afflict the American experience and confound our policymakers, but it seems to me that remembering simple principles could have saved us a lot of trouble in the first place.
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