Sunday, October 24, 2004

Talk is Cheap. War is Hard.

After the action in Kosovo concluded, American General Shalikashvili had occasion to comment on that intervention. As an exercise for the reader, I recommend substituting "Saddam Hussein" for "Serbia", "Iraq" for "Kosovo", and "Bush" for "Clinton" for a serviceable commentary on the current strategic situation in Iraq. Shalikashvili's sometimes prescient words are also sometimes tragically misguided, as when he estimates the future political thinking on foreign interventions by the United States.

The Clinton administration faced the intervention in Kosovo as a question of whether the United States would intervene and whether we would permit Serbia to retain sovereignty over Kosovo. It failed to ask the more important question of whether the United States and its allies had the military power in place to achieve its political ends, and whether the amount of military power required should be spent in a place like Kosovo. The United States simply assumed, without the meticulous analysis required, that it had the needed power. It did not. Thus, the decade begun in Kuwait ends in the skies over Serbia. No American government will, in the near future at least, simply assume that it has the military power needed to impose its will. This is, obviously, a healthy lesson to learn. There is a vast difference between being the greatest military power in the world and omnipotence. The United States rules the seas and can, wherever it chooses, rule the skies. This is not the same as being able to compel other nations to capitulate on matters of fundamental national importance. It must always be remembered that demographics never favor intervention in Eurasia. American ground forces are always outnumbered whenever they set foot in Eurasia. Sometimes air and naval superiority along with superior technology and training can compensate for this demographic imbalance. Sometimes it cannot. Sometimes it can compensate only after a build-up taking many months, as in Desert Storm. The casual assumption that the general superiority of U.S. military power inevitably translates into quick victory in any specific circumstance is obviously wrong and the point has been finally driven home. We would be very surprised if the Clinton Administration attempted another humanitarian intervention after Kosovo.
Indeed, one of the lessons learned by all future administrations is that interventions should never be casually undertaken until, and unless, the military is given time to plan and implement the intervention, as Bush permitted in Desert Storm. Moreover, since the implementation of an intervention in Eurasia is always costly and time-consuming, what appeared to be a good idea at first glance, might well turn out to be a very bad idea in the long run. Merely wanting to do something does not mean that something can be done. Moral obligations are easy to assume. They are sometimes impossible to carry out. This is a hard lesson to learn. Put differently, talk is cheap.War is hard.

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