- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009



“So who’s in favor of a war-losing strategy?”

The answer was self-evident. The same skewering should apply to the equally misleading phrase of “wars of necessity and wars of choice.” Wars are ultimately about judgment and should be so regarded and defined.

In a simplistic sense, all but the most frivolous are wars of necessity. How many states believed at the time that a decision to go to war was anything but a necessity rather than a choice, irrespective of the strengths of any casus belli? None. Of course, promiscuously bandying about the word “war” or using misleading descriptors inevitably leads to trouble. Remember the various American wars on drugs, crime, poverty and the like?

Seven or eight years ago, some of us advocated dropping the phrase “global war on terror” from the political lexicon. The reasons were clear. In dealing with threats, emerging or otherwise, actions must focus on causes, not symptoms, to succeed. Terror was not the strategic center of gravity. It was a symptom and a tactic. The causes and the persons using terror to seize power were the threats. The latest nomenclature of wars of necessity and wars of choice is a similar distortion.

Wars are matters of judgment, good or bad. Necessity perhaps and choice surely are superficial distinctions. A war of necessity implies responding to and being justified by a first attack. A war of choice is taken in this context to mean a pre-emptive war or war of aggression with manufactured or indeed without casus belli. Such distinctions are misleading.

While World War I, to use Barbara W. Tuchman’s splendid title, was a march of folly, both the Allies and Central Powers believed that not to mobilize first would enable the other side to win. Mobilization meant war. But there was no choice, no matter the folly. And tens of millions perished in a war that should have been avoided but was not and was hardly a necessity or a choice rather than a fatal misjudgment.

George W. Bush regarded the invasion of Iraq as the means to change the geostrategic framework of the Middle East and to cut pre-emptively any possible links, however manufactured, between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The lack of judgment on the part of the Bush administration - and the whole weapons-of-mass destruction episode was likewise a critical lapse of both branches of government - led to the failure to prepare for an occupation. If that occupation had gone smoothly, who knows how different the world might be and how that war might have been regarded?

In Afghanistan, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America recognized there was no alternative to a determined response to punish and eliminate al Qaeda. However, as with Iraq later, the postwar period was grossly ignored. Worse, NATO invoked for the first time in its history the Article 5 declaration that an attack against one could be considered an attack against all and was prepared to go to war in Afghanistan. The administration initially declined the help, thinking the allies would only impede military operations. Hence, the Afghan war was all about judgment, judgment that was sadly lacking.

When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and set Europe afire for six years, his intent was to expand the power and influence of the Third Reich. He disregarded any Allied response, correctly believing that if the Allies did not appease him, the Wehrmacht would drive them off the Continent. This was neither necessity nor choice. Had Hitler exercised better judgment and not turned against Soviet Russia in 1941 - a fatal miscalculation along with gratuitously declaring war unilaterally on the United States a few days after Pearl Harbor, which led to Germany’s defeat - it is impossible to guess how the future would have evolved.

Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was predicated on the judgment that the shock of the attack would force America to capitulate and accept Japanese suzerainty in the Pacific. Hence, what some might define as a war of choice was a war based on the judgment that Japan needed access to vital resources in Southeast Asia that it saw as being denied by the United States - necessity perhaps, but not relevant. Here again, it was the judgment that counted.

What does this mean for dealing with the panoply of emerging threats? First, war is about judgment. Second, beware of slogans. Finally, war should be a last and not a first resort and should be regarded as neither a policy of necessity nor of choice.

Harlan K. Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His last book was “America’s Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship From Wrecking Our Nation.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide