The Decision to Fight

May 1, 1991

Liberal soothsayers, stunned temporarily by the success of Operation Desert Storm, have found a new theme. The “Vietnam Syndrome,” they now tell us, was a good thing. As they explain it, defeat in Indochina humbled the United States and curbed its urge toward military adventurism. The Gulf War restored our confidence, and that, they say, will lead to reckless or arrogant misuse of power.

This argument reeks of political desperation. No part of it is convincing. If the US acts with greater assurance in foreign policy, that is not necessarily a bad thing, and it does not necessarily mean the recreational invasion of Lower Slobovia.

By no stretch of the imagination did the Gulf War establish a precedent for the irresponsible use of power. In fact, it was the best example in a long time of when and how US troops should be committed to combat. As such, it is worth further consideration.

It is generally understood that a direct attack on the US or its treaty allies will provoke a military response, but in what other circumstances do we go to war? Stated policy is ambiguous. It says we will defend our vital national interests, but they are defined rather vaguely themselves.

For obvious reasons, the policy cannot be totally explicit. That would .tell an aggressor exactly how far he could push us without penalty. On the other hand, it is both possible and useful to explore some broad principles that bear on the decision to employ military force.

A good point of departure for such an exploration is the so-called “Weinberger Doctrine” of 1984, in which former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger proposed a series of “tests to be applied when,we are weighing the use of US combat forces abroad”:

Is a vital national interest at stake? Are we willing to commit enough troops and resources to win? Will we sustain that commitment? Are the political and military objectives clearly defined? Is there reasonable expectation that the public and Congress will support the action? Have we tried other measures to achieve our objectives before sending forces into combat as a last resort

Unlike Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, and the Desert One fiasco in Iran, the Persian Gulf War met all the conditions described in the Weinberger Doctrine. Persian Gulf resources had been defined as vital to the US since January 1980, when President Jimmy Carter pledged we would defend our interests there “by any means necessary, including military force.”

The Bush Administration spent almost six agonizing months trying to resolve the Gulf crisis by economic and diplomatic means.In contrast to the uncertain gradualism that characterized the Vietnam War, US forces began Operation Desert Storm with adequate strength to achieve the clear objectives assigned. The Gulf War not only had the support of public opinion and Congress but also had the backing of the international community.

To his eternal credit, President Bush kept political aides and amateur tacticians at bay and left battlefield decisions to the military professionals. A completely different approach was demonstrated by the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, whose mistakes included dressing up in a soldier suit and fantasizing himself as a general.

The Middle East situation was a clear-cut case of justifiable use of military force. Saddam, defiantly occupying Kuwait and looking ahead to his next move, was an unacceptable threat to regional stability and the global economy. If US and coalition forces had held back, Saddam would have been free to consolidate his power, add nuclear weapons, and press on from there.

Was there any alternative to war? Of course. There always is. It requires only that we concede to an aggressor whatever he wants. Those who carelessly subscribe to the “no alternative” standard should understand fully what it implies.

It is impossible to anticipate all the variations of conflict that might occur. Whatever the circumstances of the next crisis are, they will surely be different from those leading to the Persian Gulf War. The decision to commit troops to combat must be made case by case.

Basic principles can be worked out in peacetime, though, and it helps to study the examples of past wars. The President and his advisors were keenly aware of mistakes made in Vietnam and avoided repeating them in Operation Desert Storm. Their actions bespoke planning, not improvisation.

If the Gulf War set a new precedent for the exercise of power, the soothsayers can stop worrying about adventurism or indiscriminate involvements abroad.