Past U.S. wars offer straightforward guideposts for success. First, set out a vision of a stable postwar political situation and develop a plan that gets you there. Second, define your goals precisely — avoiding cheap talk, simplistic analogies, and abstract concepts such as “victory” or “democracy” — and frame your political objectives in terms of what specifically will happen on the ground once military operations are finished. Finally, prepare at least rudimentary backup plans for what to do if things go better, worse or differently than expected.
If this sounds like common sense, that’s because it is. But in war, as in life, common sense is quite uncommon. Presidents have violated each of these “best practices” in every American war over the past century — and sometimes several of them in a single conflict.
Woodrow Wilson fought World War I to make the world “safe for democracy,” but he never asked himself what democracy actually meant and whether, say, a constitutional monarchy in Germany would fit the bill. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration never considered what would happen to its postwar arrangements if its alliance with the Soviet Union fell apart. Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, made voluntary prisoner repatriation (the offer of asylum to enemy prisoners of war in U.N. hands) a key war aim in Korea but never asked themselves whether such a demand would block an armistice — which it did for almost a year and a half. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations dug themselves deeper and deeper into Vietnam without any strategy for victory or withdrawal.
George H.W. Bush assumed that Saddam Hussein would fall as a result of defeat in the Persian Gulf War but thought little about what to do if he did not. And George W. Bush made sure that Hussein’s regime toppled but paid scant attention to what might follow.
Now, in the first war — or “kinetic military action” — that President Obama can truly call his own, his administration seems determined to best its predecessors by violating all of the maxims simultaneously.
In Libya, instead of starting with the desired end state and working back to develop a strategy for achieving it, the administration has launched the United States into battle with no clear vision of what a successful and stable outcome looks like. Instead of defining postwar goals precisely and matching means to ends, different officials have set out a range of objectives, from narrow (protecting civilians) to broad (ousting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi), even as they have announced severe restrictions on the military measures being considered to achieve them (no ground troops and no lengthy U.S. involvement). And if there has been any contingency planning for what happens should Gaddafi not fold or fall quickly, it is the only U.S. diplomatic secret yet to be leaked.