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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pelosi and Clausewitz

Suddenly, thanks to the patient and effective work of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman John Murtha—the first national office holder to argue for an end to American involvement in Iraq—the United States faces a political crisis over the Iraq War. Yesterday’s events took everyone by surprise (including me), and to judge from today’s Times, the major media are reacting very slowly and failing to recognize how serious the situation is. Because continuing the war requires more money, the House of Representatives can, if it chooses, exercise a veto upon it. After the Senate fails to pass this bill (as it surely will, even if a majority of Senators, as is quite likely, would vote for it), the appropriation will have to go to conference, and the House would have to agree, and then pass, a measure that fund the war without a withdrawal deadline. They may not do so, all the more so since the country, to judge from polls, stands squarely behind them.

Clausewitz remains the indispensable reference on matters relating to war, and this is no exception. To understand what is happening today, we can begin with one of his more famous, but also more misunderstood passages—his definition of war as a “paradoxical trinity.” I quote:

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant characteristics always make war a remarkable trinity--composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”

I shall stop there for a moment, saving the few sentences—which have created a lot of confusion—for the time being. Essentially, Clausewitz is defining war the way the fire triangle defines fire. Just as fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen, war needs 1) primordial violence, passion and hatred; 2) a battlefield on which the two sides try to make things happen (the real meaning, the book makes clear, of “the play of chance and probability”); and a political or policy objective (the same word, politik, has both meanings in German, the language of Clausewitz’s work.

Applying this to the Iraq war—and critically, to both sides—tells us a great deal. The Iraqi contestants have plenty of passion and hatred and do not shrink from primordial violence, either against the American-led occupation or against each other. But passion has lagged in the United States, and President Bush, sadly, is now spending more time trying to arouse passion against the Democratic opposition to the war than against our various enemies in Iraq. We certainly have a battlefield, which includes the bulk of the Iraqi Arab population, but our troops have never been numerous enough to control more than a fraction of it at any given time. But our policy objective—a free, democratic, friendly, pluralistic Iraq—has proven to be a mirage. A new article by George Packer in last week’s New Yorker on the fate of Iraqis who have dared to work with the United States shows beyond any doubt that we trust no Iraqis and have established no lasting political foothold in the country. (The article deserves a post all its own; I mention now merely that the American authorities have stopped hiring Iraqis at all—they are importing Jordanians into the Green Zone instead.) It is madness, of course, to fight for an impossible political objective, and that is what Speaker Pelosi, a real American hero, means when she declares, “The American people see the reality of the war; the president does not.”

And that leads us back to the second part of my Clausewitz quote, which follows the first directly:

“The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of the government alone.”

These two sentences have given birth to the widespread misconception that Clausewitz’s trinity is composed of the people, the army, and the government. It isn’t—the actual three elements are those identified above—passion, the battlefield, and policy. But Clausewitz expected to find the passion within the people of the warring state, he counted upon military leaders to try to win the war on the battlefield, and he expected the political leadership rationally (see above) to design the goals of the war. Unfortunately, life is not always that simple. President Bush has often identified himself as a man motivated more by “instinct” and by faith than by reason, and he now seems motivated more by a passion to prove himself right than by any reasoned appreciation of the facts. Moreover, his rhetoric increasingly makes the American troops he has kept in Iraq, not broader foreign policy considerations, the stake which, he claims, we are fighting for. That is actually a very dangerous attempt to rouse the passion of some Americans (those with ties to the military) against others (those who oppose the war.) That worked for Richard Nixon, but only because he was winding down his war, not escalating it, at the same time. And yesterday, one of the most moving speeches in the House came from a recently returned veteran of the Iraq war, who echoed John Kerry’s famous statement in 1972 and defied the House to explain to the men who had fought and died under his command why we should continue indefinitely to do for the Iraqis what they will not do for themselves.

The American people, meanwhile, have lost their passion for the war and, as in Vietnam, have reached the conclusion that the chance of reaching our objectives does not justify further sacrifices. In my opinion, they were right about that in Vietnam and they are right now. (I shall take up the actual consequences of our eventual withdrawal from Iraq later.) The House of Representatives reflected the conclusion of those who elected it in its vote yesterday. Clausewitz lived in the early 19th century, a great age of rationality (as I point out in Politics and War,) and he was accustomed to political leaders who could calculate rationally. We have learned to our sorrow that many cannot, especially in the midst of war.

Clausewitz’s goal in On War, indeed, was to help reason rule conflict, even though he understood that passion would play a key role. Indeed, near the beginning of the book, he wrote that civilized peoples were ruled by reason, barbarians by passion. That, in my opinion, was too optimistic a view. But in an attempt to prepare his contemporaries for the kind of situation we face today, he explained exactly how nations should react when their goals have become too expensive to achieve.

“Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by the political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”

That is a simple, logical statement. It is also what Clausewitz, borrowing from contemporary philosophers, would have called an ideal type: it expresses how things should work in theory, but not how they always work in practice. He wrote his book to try to close that gap. It is a never-ending task. Yesterday the House of Representatives did its part.


Anonymous said...

Clausewitz' statement also made it clear you only get an all-out war when the people are fired up enough to want one. Otherwise you get a calculated limited-objectives war.

Dubya has been trying to push us over the edge into World War II mode for almost seven years and so far, the people aren't buying it.

One thing that's working, though, is the sort of repeated provocative acts and/or impossible conditions that any nation would react to, then using the reaction to "prove" the nation is evil and wants war. This is how the 3rd Punic War started.

J. said...

You know, I had to read this three times before it really sank in. This is no reflection on your excellent style of writing, but just the need for me to bounce it around in my head and truly understand what you were proposing. I can't say I'm a student of Clausewitz other than being familiar with the quotes. Nice piece of work.

Anonymous said...

Look if you think Pelosi is a real american hero, we're going to have issues, I digress. The last part where Clausewitz states the object is lost and peace must follow, so if we pull out that means Peace? Peace for who? Us, maybe, we're still going to have to pick and choose which side we fight on going back in to resolve Sunni Shiite skirmishes. Leave it alone and don't go back, that's not Peace for the region and we'll end up going back again. No, we stay, give the surge a chance, 6 months, a year, and then re evaluate. The passion is gone, but the public shouldn't be passionate about war, it needs to learn to be PATIENT with this one.

Unknown said...

very good analysis
of course Goering said you could always sucker the people into war. just tell them their country is threatened. Rebut the pacificists with being traitors.


"Later in the conversation, Gilbert recorded Goering's observations that the common people can always be manipulated into supporting and fighting wars by their political leaders:

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Maybe the country and Pelosi have matured.


Anonymous said...

Some comments on the background to your analysis of Clausewitz.

My understanding is that the House (and Senate) supplimental appropriations efforts specify the withdrawal of combat troops at different points in the future, but not the mercenaries or the non-combat troops. I don't believe Pelosi is arguing for an end to American presence in Iraq. And John Murtha, as a national office holder, was preceded by Dennis Kucinich (and, I believe, Barbara Lee, among others) who have been calling for total withdrawal much before Murthas plea a year or so ago.

Second, It isn't clear that the U.S. policy has been to create a "free, democratic, friendly, pluralistic Iraq". I think that is what Bush wants the public to believe. His actions have belied that, not least in the seeming encouragement of the sectarian warfare that he encourages.

Finally, while the speech in the House by a veteran regarding not doing for the Iraqis what they won't do for themselves may have been moving, and expresses an all too common sentiment, there is no basis for such a statement. We have yet to allow the Iraqis the chance to work on this problem without American interference. Indeed there is much that suggests that the very real "civil war" in Iraq is an American creation, intentional or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Wow - you blew this prediction. You must look back on your smug opinions and feel embarrassed. 30 years in the business and still dead wrong.