Camelot, Clausewitz or Clinton?

When President John F. Kennedy pledged in his inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty,” he unknowingly turned Carl von Clausewitz on his head. I doubt Kennedy ever read Clausewitz, the Prussian general who, after fighting Napoleon wrote On War, the most comprehensive study of war every penned.

Chapter one, page one, Clausewitz wrote, “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” According to the master, the object of war is to impose our will on the enemy and “to secure that object we must render the enemy powerless.”

Liberals denigrate the study of war because it offends precious progressive assumptions about humanity’s essential goodness and innate rationality. Some 2500 years before Clausewitz, Confucian scholar-soldier Sun Tzu wrote, “Those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so.”

Not understanding the nature of war, liberals believe force can manipulate people, even scum like Saddam Hussein, into doing what’s right and logical. Accordingly they are inclined to use force more often than conservatives and in the wrong causes…to affect some “greater good.” After Kennedy’s pledge led to an open-ended, strategically bankrupt commitment of forces in South Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson likened his control over bombing the North to using a thermostat, enabling to turn the heat up or down. A flawed air strategy resulted in over six hundred U.S. planes lost, hundreds of dead and missing airmen and more than three hundred prisoners of war.

A generation later, Bill Clinton turned to air power confident precision guided weapons would take out the bad guys with little risk of collateral damage…which upsets liberals by reminding them how awful war can be. Consequently, in 1999, the United States bombed seven countries; Sudan, Bulgaria and, if you count the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as sovereign soil, three by accident. Reflecting Clinton’s ignorance of the nature of war, something shared by his national security team of Madeline Albright, Bill Cohen and Anthony Lake, he assured the world, including Serbia, ground forces would not be used.

While cruise missiles blasted military headquarters in Belgrade and laser guided bombs dropped bridges into the Danube, the Serb army, confident no invasion was forthcoming, fanned out over Kosovo slaughtering the Albanian population. After seventy-eight days of bombing finally compelled the world’s thirty-fifth ranked military power to accede to NATO’s demands, Serb thugs had mostly finished their bloody work in Kosovo.

Conservatives understand the effects of original sin and know humans are nasty and inclined to irrationality. Conservatives know after you throw a punch what happens next is unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Therefore, when opting for war the paramount strategic question must be, is this in our strategic national best interest? If it is, go for the proverbial “head shot”…a knockout blow in round one.

The nature of a post conflict Iraqi regime, world opinion or that of the Arab states, are secondary to the primary question of strategic national best interests. If Saddam develops nuclear weapons is he likely to use them on us or our friends’ Conservatives know–even most liberals feel–Saddam is evil, but is he also illogical? His record is not inspiring. Saddam sent Iraqi forces into Kuwait in 1990, launched Scuds at non-belligerent Israel during the Gulf War, attempted ecological disaster by pumping oil into the Persian Gulf and setting oil wells ablaze, and he used chemical/biological weapons on Kurds inside Iraq. Saddam now succours remnants of Al Qaeda.

If at some horrible future time we consider responding to Saddam by the light of glowing irradiated rubble emanating from what was an American city, the response likely will be to nuke Iraq into a vast glass desert parking lot.

If, war is in our national best interest, we must win quickly and decisively. Prolonged war can only sap both our national will and beleaguered economy, possibly benefiting Iraq and breathing new life into Al Qaeda. As Clausewitz noted, “the maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect.”

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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