Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 24, 2011

Wars of Choice

By David K. Shipler

The air strikes on Libya and the hand-wringing in the United States illustrate a cold fact about waging war these days: We are fair-weather fans. If we win, the warfare is a good idea; if we don’t, it isn’t. Only after Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s fate is determined will our attack be solemnly judged to have been brilliant or foolhardy, a stroke of heroic selflessness or fumbling incompetence.

This makes us sound cynical, but it may be the natural pragmatism of an American public grown wary of being sucked into swampy combat in complex places. Where national survival isn’t at stake, early enthusiasm invariably wanes as conflicts drag on. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq all had majority support at the outset. Vietnam’s eroded with the mounting American casualties and the endless failure to win. Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s declined as the quick victories over the governments of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, respectively, faded into elusive victories at the grassroots.

No ground troops are slated for Libya, which indicates how vital to our interests we think it is. If Qaddafi retains power, it’s a safe bet that the 47 to 70 percent polled as endorsing the no-fly zone in its initial days will plunge. Some enterprising researcher should graph how closely the political commentary tracks the rise and fall of the rebels’ fortunes. A line charting the pronounced wisdom of doing air strikes would surely climb with the rebels’ advances and decline with their retreats.

At the outset, popular support comes rather easily for antiseptic, high-tech warfare that costs only American dollars (about $1.4 million per Tomahawk cruise missile) and not American lives. War by remote control can become cavalier. But imagine the surge of disapproval if those two American pilots who crashed had been captured instead of rescued.

When casualties are introduced, even just written into survey questions as hypotheticals, public endorsement declines. That was documented by an ABC News poll during the NATO bombardment to halt Serbia’s 1999 assault in Kosovo, aimed at curbing the slaughter of ethnic Albanians. Asked whether they would favor sending ground troops if the air strikes weren’t enough, 57 percent of Americans surveyed said yes. And “if there was a good chance that some U.S. soldiers would be killed in the fighting?” The support fell to 44 percent. If “up to 100 U.S. soldiers” were killed? Approval dropped to 37 percent. With “up to 500” killed it went down to 31 percent, and at 1,000 deaths to 26 percent.

Is this unreasonable? Not in a war of choice, and that’s what our wars since 1945 have mostly been, even if they haven’t looked that way at the time. The Korean War may be the singular exception. It can still be justified as a war of necessity, given North Korea’s conquest of all but an enclave in the South before it was driven back and nearly overrun by American-led U.N. troops until China came to its rescue. The end result—the same partition as before the war—is not regarded in the United States as a loss.

Nor would the same outcome—continued partition—have been considered a loss in Vietnam, where the United States was propelled by the firm (erroneous) conviction that a monolithic global communist movement would roll past South Vietnam into all of Southeast Asia and beyond. That domino theory baffled veteran North Vietnamese officials, and they said so in 1997 during an unprecedented conference convened in Hanoi to review the missed opportunities for peace. Again and again, the Vietnamese insistently explained to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other Americans that the war’s goal had been independence, not the spread of communism. From Hanoi’s viewpoint, the struggle continued centuries of resistance to colonialism from China, France, and finally the United States.

It is an axiom of war that the final results cannot be known until many years after the fighting has ended. A triumphal Israel emerged from the Six-Day War in 1967, a powerful David against the Arab Goliath, but 44 years later, remains shackled to a burgeoning, hostile Palestinian population in the territories it captured and a grinding war of terrorism and reprisal. In 1973 Israel nearly succumbed, yet Egypt’s near victory helped give President Anwar Sadat the stature to make peace. Invading Lebanon in 1982, Israel secured its north by expelling the Palestine Liberation Organization. But it was a war of choice, and while the Israeli army showed its prowess in conventional military terms, it also proved vulnerable to close-in attacks by individual guerrillas. Israeli public support eroded, the country ultimately appeared irresolute, and its long-planned withdrawal was misinterpreted as a retreat and a capitulation, which emboldened its adversaries.

Afghanistan may have begun as a war of necessity to uproot al-Qaeda after 9/11, but it has morphed into a war of choice. Iraq was a war of choice from the beginning. We have had no ultimate victory in either place, so we cannot judge those wars worthwhile. We do not yet know their long effects, however. The history books are still open.


  1. Hi Dave,
    It is interesting that you ended your article with " the history books are still open" Another perspective on Libya and the other rebellions in the Middle East is the concept of an "awakening" taking place. If this is true then I think our action in Libya and lack of support for other dictators put us on the right "side" of history so far. No burning American flags etc. and not much sign of the over feared Al Qaeda. Look forward to seeing you and Debbie this summer.
    Larry Wardwell

  2. Larry, I see the same "awakening" that you do. It's exciting, and I'm relieved that the U.S. is not reflexively supporting every dictator who has cooperated with us, which included Qaddafi in recent years, as you know. But we're not pushing hard in Bahrain, for example, which is vital to our naval deployment in the Gulf, and not even in Yemen. The outcome in all these countries, including Egypt, is far from certain--meaning that it's far from certain that the overthrow of autocracies will ultimately result in open, pluralistic political systems. In some cases, that may not be what protesters want: Yemen, for example, looks like a struggle for influence among an array of tribes, and that may also be the case in Libya. In other words, stay tuned.

  3. Would you take a stab at why we/the allies really joined this conflict? The official justification, protecting Libyans from slaughter, sounds like a cover. Is it that everyone hates Qaddafi, not just Europeans and Americans, but Arabs and Africans, too, and we just couldn't pass up this opening to get rid of him. Or what?

  4. I'm speculating, but I wouldn't dismiss the humanitarian factor as one of several. Remember that Bill Clinton has lamented failing to act during Rwanda's genocide in 1994. It's reasonable to imagine that his lingering regret has influenced his wife's current advocacy of military action in Libya. One wonders what conversations they had during Rwanda, and then recently. But it's not pure altruism, either. Standing by while Qaddafi used heavy weapons against his own people would not have gone down well in the Arab world, given the popular uprisings now aimed at shaking off dictators. Both the U.S. and Europe have keen interests in cultivating improved relations with what you might call the Arab future, and that future is now in the streets, not in the palaces. Finally, yes, Qaddafi has been a wild card, despite his amenable positions from the U.S. perspective in recent years. And although his oil contributes only a tiny percentage of the world's production, disruption is a concern. So I'd say this action is a blend of humanitarianism and realpolitik. That doesn't mean it's necessarily wise, however. It carries huge risks.

  5. David, I was encouraged by your remark: "It is an axiom of war that the final results cannot be known until many years after the fighting has ended." I am taking the liberty of suggesting that you might like my recent book "The Illusion of Victory" (MUP 2011) which explores this idea in some detail Hope to hear from you. Ian