Friday, November 27, 2009

Churchill's memo to Obama

A warning to Obama as he prepares to unveil his new Afghan strategy:
Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent, or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations - all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you could easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.
Winston Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930), Chapter 18 (With Buller To The Cape), p. 246 (cited in Wikiquote).
Obama's long deliberation might make such a warning seem superfluous (and certainly no one engaged the Afghanisan effort seems prone to war fever -- except the Taliban). The danger for his team seems to lie not in overlooking these truths but in hyper-awareness of them. As Rory Stewart has suggested, the very scope and perfectionism of McChrystal's plans -- and perhaps of Obama's subsequent plans on top of plans -- suggests a will to overpower these deeply rooted forces and limitations in human social organization. Of course, all wartime leaders must will to overcome them -- relative to the enemy, in any case. The danger perhaps lies in seeking to accomplish the aims of war on terms acceptable to a deeply ambivalent populace, exhausted military and depleted treasury.

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