Both Congress and the White House are wrestling with the problem of how to resolve America’s military engagements in Libya and Afghanistan. Even many normally hawkish conservatives are questioning the continued cost and viability of the Afghan effort as President Obama prepares to make his pivotal summer decision regarding the size and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals. And when it comes to Obama’s Libyan operation, the feeling among House Republicans is overwhelmingly dissatisfied and critical. Indeed, the House of Representatives has voted by a large majority to rebuke the president’s handling of that war — a rebuke made easier, politically speaking, by the administration’s refusal to straightforwardly admit that the U.S. is in fact at war in Libya.
The overarching sense of growing fatigue with military interventions abroad may have a significant impact on GOP presidential primaries next year. Already, likely presidential candidate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has suggested that current U.S. war efforts need to be reevaluated in the light of fiscal concerns. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said something similar about Afghanistan earlier this spring. Such arguments, it seems, are no longer restricted to the narrow circle of Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) and his most fervent supporters.
There are certainly profound problems with Obama’s handling of these military operations — especially Libya. Conservatives have always been inclined, when it comes to war, to say: win or go home. But even with Obama as commander-in-chief, it would be a grave mistake for conservative Republicans to abandon their quest for victory, and instead push for rapid American disengagement in either Libya or Afghanistan.
This is hardly the first time this issue has arisen. In fact, the question of whether and how the United States should intervene militarily overseas has produced a number of interesting and important doctrines over the years. Each of these doctrines has addressed, with different emphases depending on its author, international approval and participation, popular domestic support, pre-emptive action, humanitarian concerns, democracy promotion, and the use of force only as a last resort. We have seen the Weinberger doctrine, the Powell doctrine, the Bush doctrine, and now perhaps the Obama doctrine. I would like to suggest an alternative: the Al Davis doctrine.
Al Davis, as most readers no doubt know, is the ill-tempered and longtime owner of the Oakland Raiders. He is not a model of congeniality, but he does have a certain kind of relentless mentality, which helped power the Raiders to three Super Bowl victories during the 1970s and 1980s. This mentality was summed up in his famous slogan: “Just win, baby.”
Some may think that such a slogan is flippant or irrelevant in relation to such a terrible thing as war. Actually, it is highly relevant, and deadly serious. For several decades now, the United States has followed a disturbing pattern of intervening militarily in peripheral locations, with the initial intention of bearing only a strictly limited cost. This in turn invites the disturbing possibility of defeat or humiliation when these fights do not go well. The current U.S. intervention in Libya is a case in point.
Here lies the relevance of Al Davis. In warfare, the most important thing is not really the declared support of the Arab League, or the public-opinion polls, or the exhaustion of all other alternatives. Once warfare is initiated, the most important thing is to win. In the absence of winning, no other good outcomes or objectives are operative. Would you like to save the lives of innocent civilians in country X? Then win the war, and do it as quickly as possible, since the longer the war drags on, the more civilians will be killed. Would you like to be sensitive to domestic popular support? Then win the war, and remove the question of whether you are a capable leader or an indecisive one bogged down by difficult situations abroad. Are you concerned about the international response? Then win the war, and observe that governments overseas — whether friendly or hostile — tend to notice when a country shows itself determined to persist and succeed militarily overseas.
Of course, all of this presumes that we can define “win,” but in the cases of Libya and Afghanistan, we can.
In Libya, for all of the surrounding hoopla, the United States has thus far expended relatively little effort in concrete military terms toward achieving President Obama’s declared goal that Moammar Qaddafi must go. And that goal is now implicit in the Western military campaign against Qaddafi, whether the United Nations admits it or not. The U.S. has intervened forcibly on the side of the rebels in a Libyan civil war, and that war will not end until one side or the other wins. As long as Qaddafi remains in power — with or without a temporary ceasefire — he will be free to defy the United States, support terrorist attacks against the West, threaten oil supplies, displace refugees across the Mediterranean, and slaughter civilians.