by Adam Elkus
Why you would you fight a war if you didn’t want to win? While this seems may seem to be a silly question, we must delve deep into this issue as the tangled debate on American strategy grows even more confusing.
Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in September that has since begun to get some attention in the blogosphere that argues, in essence, that victory is outdated:
No country, however mighty, can direct or determine global outcomes (it never could, but the illusion was good enough for government work). The best it can hope reflections on the 9/11 decade for is to influence others - governments and societies alike - in shaping events and adapting to a continuous stream of changing challenges. In this world we will not ‘win wars’ [my emphasis]. We will have an assortment of civilian and military tools to increase our chances of turning looming bad outcomes into good - or at least better - outcomes.
This is actually a somewhat old theme in strategic debate. As Dan Trombly notes, Andrew Bacevich sounded a similar tune in announcing the “death of military history” in modern international politics. Bacevich argues that World War I had created a fracture in the defining Western way of war—the use of force in an instrumental fashion to achieve military objectives. Iraq and Afghanistan, he argued, has killed it:
If any overarching conclusion emerges from the Afghan and Iraq Wars (and from their Israeli equivalents), it’s this: victory is a chimera. Counting on today’s enemy to yield in the face of superior force makes about as much sense as buying lottery tickets to pay the mortgage: you better be really lucky. …Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?
The fundamental problem with the “end of victory” meme is that it mistakes the relationship between policy, strategy, and tactics. Policy is a condition or behavior (for example, Adam Elkus has a policy of eating Chinese food). Strategy is a purpose-built bridge between policy and tactics (Adam Elkus has a strategy of going to the Fairfax, VA PF Changs to acquire said Chinese food), and tactics are the execution of the strategy (once at PF Changs, I order and promptly consume chicken lettuce wraps and Philip’s Better Lemon Chicken—nom nom nom). For a less colloquial exposition, see my response to Robert Jones.
Mixed results in Iraq and Afghanistan are not proof that victory itself should not be a goal of American military efforts. They are only proof that the policies and strategies that animated American forces were faulty. If Slaughter and Bacevich are arguing that we should adopt more realistic and limited policies and strategies in war, I wholeheartedly agree. Nearly a decade of state-building later, we have ultimately little to show for our efforts. But that is not what is what is being said. Rather, there is a straightforward argument that we cannot “win” wars anymore.