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.
#ad#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.
#page#Obama has already tied America’s reputation to the resolution of all of this. Yet under his instructions, U.S. forces operate over Libya under bizarrely restrictive rules of engagement and in a fashion so extremely restrained as to defy common sense. The surest way to successfully end this war, along with America’s involvement in it, is to escalate U.S. and allied airstrikes, increase financial support to the rebels, formally recognize the Libyan insurgency, turn up the pressure on Qaddafi and his henchmen, target their headquarters aggressively, and make them realize that they are going to lose. To be sure, any postwar peacekeeping operation on the ground should be managed by European and Arab, not American, forces — we have had enough of that for a while. But an escalated U.S. air campaign will actually be more cost-effective and humane in the long run, as it will help bring this war and its costs to an end by communicating with Qaddafi in the only way that he truly understands. For congressional Republicans to pull the plug on this effort would only add to the impression overseas that America can be defeated militarily through the infliction of minimal costs. Let us instead topple this nasty thug and get it over with.
#ad#The Afghan case is even clearer. The United States has invested a great deal over the last decade, in both human and financial terms, to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to being a base for anti-American terrorism. One hundred thousand U.S. troops are fighting under Gen. David Petraeus against the Taliban and other violent Islamist militants to accomplish that excellent goal. Moreover the U.S. strategy is working. The Taliban has been hit very hard by the American military surge in Afghanistan, which robbed the organization of space, time, and numbers as well as morale. The last thing the U.S. should do right now is to pack up and go home. If American forces withdraw prematurely, and rely mainly on a campaign of unmanned aerial drone strikes, then they will create a vacuum on the ground which the Taliban and even more extremist splinter groups will surely fill. The only way to maintain political and diplomatic leverage in such cases is to keep up the pressure by force.
This war, and America’s involvement in it, will not last forever. As the Taliban are continually hammered and fractured militarily, a gradual U.S. withdrawal can allow the Afghan government to assume the overall effort under reasonably stable conditions. Yes, it is costly. But if you don’t like the cost of fighting and winning a war, try losing one. Losing in Afghanistan would be very costly and very risky indeed. It would allow that country to revert to exactly what it was on Sept. 11, 2001. The resulting instability could even have implications for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. There has been true progress over the last two years in wearing down the Taliban. To give up, or to signal retreat, would be genuinely baffling, wasteful, and unnecessary. We should therefore hope that President Obama keeps initial U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan to a bare minimum, removing our forces as slowly as possible.
It is difficult to rally behind a president when his manner of handling major military operations is visibly and painfully half-hearted. On Libya, especially, Obama compounded the problem with a highly cavalier attitude toward Congress. The management of the Libyan campaign has been a case study in how not to use force overseas. Nevertheless, the United States is now at war in Libya, as it is in Afghanistan, and U.S. credibility is therefore on the line, like it or not. In some circles — normally not conservative ones — the concept of America’s international credibility isn’t taken very seriously.
But it is an illusion to think that the United States can launch large-scale military operations abroad, and then simply walk away, unsuccessfully, without significant negative consequences. America’s adversaries regularly refer to historic cases such as Somalia, Lebanon, and Vietnam as examples of how a country as powerful as the United States can be defeated through the infliction of a certain amount of cost and pain. This impression serves to encourage attacks on the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, one might call this the other kind of “blowback.”
These impressions can be avoided or undermined through tenacity, decision, and robust practical success. In both Libya and Afghanistan, it remains entirely possible to clarify and achieve the central U.S. goal in each case: the toppling of Moammar Qaddafi, and the prevention of Afghanistan again becoming a haven for anti-American terrorism. Conservatives therefore have an important choice to make at this moment. They can decide that it is unsophisticated in this post-modern era to speak of victory in warfare. Or they can decide that the United States, once it chooses to fight, must fight to win. The history of modern American conservatives is that when their country goes to war, they usually choose the latter. Frustration with President Obama, though entirely understandable, is no reason to change that admirable history now.
— Colin Dueck is associate professor in public and international affairs at George Mason University, and the author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton, 2010).