When I bore some responsibility for the sealift to Vietnam, President Johnson asked me to tour Southeast Asia as a one-man investigative team and report back to him. One of the lines in the report I gave him was, “You can’t play basketball on a football field.” What I meant by that was that there are some circumstances in which war is not a very effective strategy. In Vietnam we had no front line, couldn’t tell our enemies from our allies, didn’t know the language or the culture, and were bound to be viewed as just the latest in a 2000-year string of imperialist invaders (following, most recently, the French). I have since broadened the application of the phrase to any situation in which military force is somewhere between inappropriate and counter-productive – for the kinds of reasons [General Collin] Powell has laid out [in what has come to be called "The Powell Doctrine"].From Nicholas Johnson, "War in Iraq: The Military Objections," February 27, 2003.
War, the overwhelming use of military fire power, is (with rare exceptions) seldom a happy choice with humanitarian benefits. Is our recent entry into Libya's civil war one of those happy exceptions?
Every decision to go to war has its unique elements. There is no cookie-cutter strategy for all. There are, however, some cookie-cutter questions worth asking in each case -- Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and now Libya. I have thought, and written, about them from time to time in the years since Viet Nam. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6 (with links to others).
Here is one of the ways I've summarized those questions in the past -- sort of my version of The Powell Doctrine:
* What, specifically, is the goal you’re trying to accomplish?Nicholas Johnson, "General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, September 8, 2006. And see the fuller discussion in, Nicholas Johnson, “War in Iraq: The Military Objections,” February 27, 2003. (As the title suggests, after listing ten categories of objections to Gulf War II, it continues, "I will limit myself to but one, one that is often overlooked: Why this war doesn’t even make sense from a military perspective.")
* Why do you think a military operation will contribute to (rather than impede) its accomplishment?
* What will it require in troops, materiel, lives and treasure to achieve that goal?
* Are you prepared to provide those resources and pay those costs?
* Will the American people support this effort for as long as it takes -- and how long will that be?
* How will we know if we’ve ever been “successful”?
* What, then, will be our exit strategy?
* What will happen when we leave?
* Will that be consistent with our original mission?
Let me make clear what I am, and am not, saying. I'm not saying what we're doing in Libya is wrong, or that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and I know better than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice how the information available to them (and not to me) should have been evaluated and acted upon. The notion of the U.S. watching from the sidelines while tens of thousands of Libyans are slaughtered by their own government is not appealing.
But from what's been available in the world's media it's not clear that all the relevant questions that need resolution before the U.S. enters into war have yet even been asked, let alone answered.
Mike Keefe's got it right. We've seen this movie before.
Credit: Mike Keefe, The Denver Post.