How To Lose a War Before Even Starting It

President Obama lost the US-Syria war of 2013 before firing a shot. He did it by leaving no doubt that he had not thought through what he meant to accomplish by attacking Syria, nor what effect the attack would have, nor what the consequences of the attack would be, nor how he planned to deal with those consequences. His departure from the common sense of war and peace was so stark, so unmistakable, that it forced the American people to confront that common sense as they had not done for a hundred years. The Obama Administration had sought to justify the attack as “tailored.” The American people’s near universal rejoinder, “to what?” “to achieve what?” as well as the 80% consensus that the proposed war be voted on by Congress, augurs well that henceforth the American people will demand that war and peace be dealt with in a manner proper to a republic rather than an empire.

By deforming this war congenitally, the Obama Administration further discredited itself. No one publicly took issue with Russia’s official jab at it: “The West behaves towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade,” much less parried it with the usual charge of “racism.” The high-level leaks that described the attack’s purpose in terms of “establishing the credibility of red lines,” of “a shot across the bow,” and of “fostering the possibility for positive change” amounted to a parody of our Foreign Policy Establishment’s abstract language.

grenadeThe Administration’s refusal to address the question “and then what?” led to even more specific questions that furthered its embarrassment: “What if the Syrian regime absorbs the initial American strikes (likely, since its valuable military assets are easily dispersable) and then commits further outrages? What is the next step? To what end?” The Obama Administration may well have been surprised at such questions, given how many times the American people had accepted the Foreign Policy Establishment’s abstractions over the previous century. But because the Obamians went to the well too often, they ended up looking like monkeys with grenades.

Events in Syria are of marginal importance to us, and on the edge of our ability to influence. Since the civil war in Syria is a major focus of the world-wide, longstanding struggle between Islam’s Sunni and Shia factions, what will happen there will be determined by Syrians and their neighbors regardless of what the US government does or does not do. The Syrian civil war’s importance to us, however, may well be that it is reminding us of how we should deal with matters of war and peace, namely: concretely, logically, un-emotionally, jealously matching the ends we seek with the means we are willing to use.

American statesmen have not done that consistently for a century. Woodrow Wilson took America into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” “to lay afresh a new plan for the foundation of peace among nations,” “to guarantee peace and justice among nations,” and other such un-definable things. Not enough people asked how anyone in his right mind could imagine accomplishing them, what force it would take to do it, and whether we had the force and will to eliminate any and all opponents to our plans. And so America ended up making the world safe for fascism and Communism and Imperial Japan.

During WWII Franklin Roosevelt refused to discuss concrete war aims, insisting instead on “unconditional surrender” of our enemies so that we could “abolish ancient evils, ancient ills.” That foreclosure of the American mind ended up putting half the world into Stalin’s hands. In 1961 John F. Kennedy committed us to “bear any burden” for the sake of freedom. That wholehearted abstraction turned out to be a halfhearted commitment to Vietnam that cost more than fifty thousand lives and triggered an upheaval of American society the end of which we have yet to see.

George Bush 41 assured Americans that his Gulf War coalition was finely calibrated to give us “a new world order.” Disorder and heightened terrorism resulted. Space does not permit citing the convoluted abstractions by which Bush 43 justified a “war on terror” against no one in particular that produced some six thousand American dead, six times that number crippled, and an endlessly expanding National Security State.

President Obama’s plan of attack on Syria was of a piece with his predecessors’ approach to war: Hid ends were hazy, there was zero correspondence between the declared ends and the means used. The immediate result would amount to what Machiavelli pointed to as the deadliest of errors: doing one’s enemies only a little harm. The longer term result was sure to be more trouble for America than before, with no plan for ending it.

Regardless of whether the Obamites are less adept than their predecessors or of whether they have simply repeated a bad script once too often, the obvious manner in which they lost a war before starting it may have taught us all some needed lessons.

Angelo M. Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and is a Senior Fellow of The Claremont Institute. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

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Comments

  1. R Ricard Schweitzer says

    There used to be a very popular phrase:

    “Management by Objective”

    We could reasonably expect Government by Objective.

    Instead, we have government as a mode of Expression, particularly Self-Expression.

    Actions taken by governments for Self-Expression, without so much as a general objective or set of objectives, are totally dysfunctional from initiation, throughout their undertaking, and necessarily in their results.

    • gabe says

      Richard:

      Good point!

      I used to practice a different management philosophy – MBWA – Management by Walking Around! Do you think we could get some of our “brighter lights” to practice this on the Syrian “shop floor”?

      • askeptic says

        on the Syrian “shop floor”?

        How, they had to bribe State employees to work in Baghdad.
        Who in this administration is going to volunteer to go to Syria, particularly after seeing that video of the execution of Syrian Army soldiers captured by the rebels? After all, how many of these “best and brightest” ever worked in anything other than an NGO, or within academe; where a hang-nail is cause for disability.

  2. libertarian jerry says

    Step by step the American Republic has drifted away from its Constitutional roots. It has gotten to the point that in the last 100 years or so the America, founded by the Founding Fathers, bares little resemblance to the original constructions and foundations of our founding documents. In short,America has degenerated from a Constitutional Republic,with laws written in concrete,to a mobocracy democracy welfare/warfare state, controlled by a few powerful men behind the scenes, that manipulate a fluid,corrupt law for their own benefit. With that said,there is no doubt that the irrational drive for Empire has been fostered by these powerful men behind the scenes who wish to bankrupt America,place her deeply and hopelessly in debt,destroy America’s sovereignty and create a New World Order,One World Government with these same elitists and globalists running everything. The evidence is clear to anyone who looks for it. It is not “tinfoil hat” conspiracy theory but the truth. Furthermore, with America’s entry into the U.N. following WWII the American government’s Constitutional Congressional power to make war has been usurped by the Executive Branch which means,in essence,that every President since Harry Truman has the power to commit America and its people to war by just using U.N. sanctions and declarations. Every military action since WWII including Korea,Vietnam,Lebanon,Granada,Desert Storm,Kosovo up to and including Libya were U.N sanctioned with the American President committing American troops and or firepower. The only thing the Congress can do is to cut off the funding as was done in Vietnam to end that war. Finally,as Bourne once said “war is the health of the state.” Governments always grow in power during war and when the war ends holds onto more power then it had at the start of the war. Now we are in an endless war. The so called “war on terror.” Perpetual war to perpetually grow the state and to cut back on personal liberty. Especially the liberties as outlined in the Bill of Rights. And now comes Syria. What has Syria’s dictator Assad ever done to us? For that matter what did Sadam Huessin or Ghadafi ever do to us? More power to the state,less liberty for American citizens. America has gone over the abyss. Its too late for a Constitutional revival. Our politicians,judges and government officials have all,with a few exceptions, been bought and paid for. All that’s left is the crash at the bottom of the abyss and with that crash serfdom for the American people and the gulags.

    • rsg says

      You sound like a follower of Crazy Uncle Ron Paul. Why has the US gotten into conflicts around the world since WWII? Well for one reason because we are not Belgium or Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, I have problems with our strategy. For one thing, I think we should highly restrict Muslim immigration instead of doing Barry’s “outreach” shuck n jive. I think we should try and isolate the Islamic world until they straighten out their religious/political problems. But blaming everything on the US is just stupid, libertarian, cliches.

  3. Wesley Clark, M.D. says

    This is a masterfully penetrating analysis of the last 100 years of blundering leaders and abject stupidity, remarkable not only for its acuity, but also for its brevity. Obama has finally solved the enigma of avoiding fatal bumbles, by acting with such utter witlessness as to eliminate the need for going to war, by losing it before we begin, no doubt saving many lives. (Or we can at least hope that the wisdom of the American people will triumph over imperial idiocy).

    I’m ordering Professor Codavilla’s book right now!

  4. pgwarner says

    Where in the world did you get the figures that justify this statement, professor? ” Space does not permit citing the convoluted abstractions by which Bush 43 justified a “war on terror” against no one in particular that produced some six thousand American dead, six times that number crippled, and an endlessly expanding National Security State.” There are 36,000 “crippled” US combat casualties? You do realize that something on the order of 70% of said injured solders return to their unit within 72 hours? There are far too many severely injured US combat veterans. Don’t cheapen their sacrifices by inflating numbers for your own ends. There are no where near that many “crippled” soldiers. BTW – Its 2014 so we don’t say “retard”, “lunatic” or “crippled”. I am not inclined to argue your general point. I’m a bit over that. Your Boston University students I am sure will find it fascinating. Just do a better job on your research.

Trackbacks

  1. […] President Obama lost the US-Syria war of 2013 before firing a shot. He did it by leaving no doubt that he had not thought through what he meant to accomplish by attacking Syria, nor what effect the attack would have, nor what the consequences of the attack would be, nor how he planned to deal with those consequences. His departure from the common sense of war and peace was so stark, so unmistakable, that it forced the American people to confront that common sense as they had not done for a hundred years. ………………………………Angelo M. Codevilla: Liberty Lawsite […]

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