Reading the Washington Post excerpts of Bob Woodward’s new book I was struck by an exchange at a September 6, 2002, meeting at Camp David. The topic was President Bush’s speech to the United Nations laying out the case for forcing Iraq to abide by U.N. Resolutions calling for its disarmament, or facing the consequences. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell were debating the merits of establishing a position that could result in the United States going to war. I was particularly interested in the secretary’s warning that war could bring unintended consequences. For example, we might destabilize friendly governments, affect oil prices, and hurt our image in the Middle East. We might find ourselves in an ambiguous conflict grinding on without clear end. In retrospect, much of this has come true.
But Powell’s argument was simultaneously true and irrelevant. Wars are always attended by unintended consequences, and always bring unforeseen change. They never turn out exactly as planned–sometimes not even as desired. This is true both in the conduct of war–no operations plans execute as expected–and in its outcome. World War One is the most dramatic example of a conflict that brought about widespread, unintended, mostly unfortunate consequences. Every major government that entered the war in 1914 fell by war’s end. Some were destroyed by revolution, others were removed by ballot, but on both sides, the men who sent the boys off to the trenches were not the same as those who signed the peace. However, unintended does not always mean undesirable. Because the Coalition demonstrated its resolve in Iraq, Libya gave up its WMD program, which helped lead investigators uncover the Pakistani nuclear black market, which is placing pressure on North Korea and Iran to come to terms with their own weapons proliferation predicament. We are rolling up the entire axis of evil. No one predicted this would happen; it was not part of the strategic plan; but without regime change in Iraq, none of this would have occurred. And let’s not forget that along the way we also achieved all of our intended consequences.
If the unintended and unexpected are inevitable in any war, that is no reason not to act. One must balance uncertainty against the importance of the issues that have brought the question of war to the table. As well, one must consider the unpredictability of recognized problems. As Pearl Harbor and 9/11 both proved, known threats can still take you by surprise.
One can always avoid the unintended consequences of action through inaction. However, the failure to act, or to act effectively, still brings consequences. This was the story of the 1990s, and the reason why the global terror network was able to flourish. The United States had a weak, reactive leader. President Clinton instituted risk minimization strategies that sacrificed strategic objectives in favor of force protection. Hence, the reliance on air power and standoff attack weapons when a ground presence was needed. Likewise, the requirement of an exit strategy before action could be taken was an impediment to pragmatic strategic thinking. It imposed a prerequisite that, whether intended to or not, stymied action by placing the decision maker in a position where he was required to have perfect foresight. It was a futile attempt to negate unintended consequences through rigorous, endless prior planning. The concept was a response to Vietnam and Somalia, where failure to define and stick to objectives, or to use the force necessary to achieve them, dealt the United States humiliating defeats. But defeat is a contemporary phenomenon. Long before exit strategy came along we had a notion called victory that gave strategists something more substantial to shoot for. It was unambiguous. It tended to produce favorable results. It is lately back in vogue.
Bill Clinton’s observation that he would have been a great president if only something important had happened on his watch is an amazing confession of impotence. One cannot imagine presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Theodore Roosevelt bemoaning that history had not handed them prestige on a platter. Great men do not wait to respond to important events, they make them happen. They are not the servants of history but its drivers. They are not cowed by the unknown, they are grounded in certainties–their faith, their fitness, and their commitment to the American ideal. This is the essential quality of leadership. A leader defines objectives, assesses capabilities, weighs risks, and acts. Many of those who fail tests of leadership stall on the third step, endlessly debating, studying, considering, pondering, trying vainly to know the unknown in advance, until the moment passes and the opportunity is lost. Competent leaders accept the fact that not everything can be known, and move forward. To say that we cannot go to war because we do not know for certain what will happen is not an argument–it is at best an excuse. Thankfully, we have a president more interested in shaping history than doing nothing and hoping everything will work out.