With Eyes Wide Open

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2002

The Bush administration has made a strenuous effort to avoid a public debate on going to war with Iraq. Nonetheless, such a debate is now underway and that is a good thing. As congressional testimony and a veritable flood of leaks illustrates, there are many important issues to vet, and this vetting should not be limited to the executive branch. The three most important issues are first, whether the President needs congressional authority to go to war with Iraq; second, if war is chosen, what the best course of action is; and finally, what is the plan for war termination.

Some are taking the position that the President does not need additional authorization from Congress to prosecute a war against Iraq. They contend that Congress granted that authority in legislation passed shortly after 9/11. This view was expressed by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott on July 31: “I suspect that al Qaeda elements are in Iraq. The resolution we passed…made it very clear that the president has the authority to pursue …al Qaeda wherever they may be found, in whatever country, which could very well include Iraq.”

In a narrow sense, Sen. Lott is right. The post-9/11 congressional resolution, like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution at the beginning of the Vietnam War, can be said to constitute a contingent declaration of war. While many constitutional authorities believe the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was an abdication of Congress’s responsibility under the Constitution, there is no question that since the end of World War II, this has been Congress’s preferred method of disposing of its own war power.

But this approach is flawed. The Founders gave the central war power to Congress for a reason—the decision to go to war is one of the most fundamental question confronting a republic. The people must be consulted.

Of course the President has his own constitutional source of power: He is the Commander-in-Chief, which directly bestows upon him powers in times of military crisis that are not derivative of any congressional power. One of these powers is the prerogative.

According to John Locke, the prerogative is “the power [of the executive] to act according to discretion for the public good, without the prescription of the law and sometimes even against it.” Since the fundamental law that the executive ultimately must implement is to preserve society, it is “fit that the laws themselves should in some cases give way to the executive power, or rather to this fundamental law of nature and government, viz. that as much as may be, all members of society are to be preserved.”

The prerogative is rendered necessary by the fact that laws arising from legislative deliberation cannot foresee every exigency. For the safety of the republic, the executive must retain some latitude for action. Thus since Congress was not in session when Ft. Sumter was attacked, President Abraham Lincoln called up volunteers, declared a blockade of Southern ports, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in some areas.

But it would be difficult for the President to invoke the prerogative in striking Iraq. This would not be a response to an attack but a decision to engage in offensive action, albeit for arguably long-term defensive purposes.

Accordingly, the President would be wise to emulate his father who asked for and received a de facto declaration of war from Congress in 1991. For one thing, such a step would redress the imbalance in the constitutional war power that arose during the previous administration when Mr. Clinton used American forces almost at will, rarely consulting with Congress.


Next, how should we go about fighting a war with Iraq? Leaks indicate there are major fissures within the administration about how to proceed. And the leaks themselves create another set of questions. As Brian Knowlton wrote in the International Herald Tribune of August 31, “analysts at home and abroad have been both puzzled and fascinated by the profusion of details pouring from a Pentagon and an administration known as unusually tight-lipped.”

In the May 5 Los Angeles Times, William Arkin became one of the first to detail the ongoing battle over a war plan for Iraq. But this past month has seen the trickle of leaks become a torrent. On July 5, the New York Times described a plan to attack Iraq from three sides with a force of up to 250,000 troops. On July 10, the same paper claimed that Jordan might be a base for an invasion.

On July 28, the Times reported a plan to take Iraq from “the inside out” by rapidly seizing Baghdad and “decapitating” Iraq’s leadership and command and control. And on August 1, Tom Ricks of the Washington Post wrote about civilian criticism of the uniformed military for the latter’s lack of innovation in planning for an attack. As the Financial Times of London editorialized on July 30, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much war planning been revealed to so many by so few. The Bush administration seems to have a different strategy for dealing with Saddam Hussein every day of the week.”

The first thing to note about the leaks is that combatant commanders are always planning for contingencies. All of the regional combatant commanders have a series of numbered war plans that are constantly under revised based on changing circumstance and the outcome of war games. These plans are very detailed, including annexes on everything from the enemy order of battle to logistics. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Central Command has a war plan for Iraq. It would be a dereliction of duty of it didn’t.

But what is going on with the leaks? Tony Blankley of the Washington Times opined recently that the leaks were purposeful. On July 31, he conjectured that “we are in the midst of a mind-numbing government disinformation campaign designed to baffle and rattle the Iraqi regime, preparatory to the commencement of hostilities.” Maybe. But I am inclined to believe that the leaks reflect fault lines based on very different conceptions about how to fight prospective wars. They are really about what the U.S. military should look like in the future.

One of the fault lines lies between civilians and the uniformed military. According to the incomparable Tom Ricks, this debate has two components. The first concerns the reluctance of many senior officers to launch a war in the first place. Many seem to prefer a continuation of the current policy of containment. The second pits “the civilian leadership pushing for innovative solutions using smaller numbers of troops” against “military planners repeatedly responding with more cautious approaches that would employ far larger forces.”

In fact, there are precedents to both disagreements. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell argued against the early use of force against Saddam in 1991, preferring the use of sanctions. But he failed to convince President Bush. The war was launched and like all good soldiers, Gen. Powell carried out his orders despite any misgivings he may have had.

And in late 1990 and early 1991, the civilian leadership rejected the early war plan presented by Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf at Central Command and ordered a return to the drawing board. CentCom’s first plan called for a frontal assault to penetrate Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait and a drive toward Kuwait City. The problem was that this plan was unlikely to achieve the foremost military objective of the ground war: the destruction of the three divisions of Saddam’s Republican Guard. The revised plan was far more imaginative. It called for the Marines and other Allied forces to “fix” the Iraqi forces south of Kuwait City while the VII and XVIII Airborne Corps executed a Kesselschlacht, a strategic envelopment from the west toward Basra—dubbed “the left hook” by the media. The purpose of this maneuver was to trap the main Iraqi forces, especially the Republican Guard, before they could escape across the Euphrates.

The response of the military to some of the civilian initiative reflects the soldier’s propensity to hedge against uncertainty and the likelihood that things won’t go as planned. The hard charges may not like it, but the response of the military is understandable, given that soldiers will have to execute the plans and will suffer the consequences of failure.

Take the “inside out,” “bolt from the blue” plan. The idea here is to carry out what used to be called a coup de main, a rapid seizure of key installations in Baghdad and elsewhere, involving, according to Tom Ricks, “narrowly focused airs trikes combined with a sprint of armored vehicles from Kuwait to Baghdad….Yet no matter how innovative the suggestions, the planners at Central Command seem to weigh them down with conventional thinking that would prolong both the preparations for any attack and the war itself, according to people involved in the process.”

The potential problem here was well expressed by the Prussian Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), Chief of the Prussian General Staff during the Wars of German Unification: “No plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.” There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is “friction,” described by Carl Von Clausewitz as “the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.” As the “philosopher of war” continued,

everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal….The military machine—the army and everything related to it—is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should keep in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals,…the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong….This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduce to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.

Three examples illustrate friction at work. The first is the Allied amphibious assault at Normandy on D-Day 1944, portrayed with striking realism in Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film, Saving Private Ryan. The operational plan for the amphibious assault on Omaha Beach was extremely detailed. Unfortunately, in conformity with Motlke’s dictum, things began to go wrong early and often. For instance, most of the amphibious tanks that were supposed to provide cover for the Omaha Beach landing sank before reaching shore. Combat engineers in the initial assault wave were supposed to destroy the obstacles that the German defenders had arrayed on the beach and mark the approaches for the landing craft carrying the subsequent assault waves. But strong currents carried the landing craft of the first wave off course by as much as 1,000 yards.

As a result, most of the obstacles were not destroyed and as the follow-on waves approached the beach, men began to use the obstacles as cover from the murderous German defensive fire. Because of this manifestation of friction and chance, landing craft began to stack up, men wading ashore were mowed down, and others, paralyzed by fear, drowned as the tide came in.

But the soldiers kept coming. And thanks to the selfless leadership of small unit commanders such as the officer played by Tom Hanks, Capt. John Miller, and the discipline and courage of individual soldiers who kept moving forward, individually and in small groups, despite the most powerful emotion known to human beings—fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation—the landing eventually succeeded.

The second example is provided by Desert Storm. Although the plan described above was excellent, it did not achieve its goal because of unexpected developments. For one thing, the Marine “fixing” attack was too successful, driving the Iraqis out of their defenses rather than fixing them in place. And the strategic envelopment of the VII Corps took too long to develop. Much of the Republican Guard escaped, providing the basis for Saddam’s continued rule in Iraq.

Finally there is the operation portrayed in the book and movie Black Hawk Down. The mission was expected to take less than an hour. But the cumulative effect of “countless minor incidents” changed what was supposed to be a routine, rapidly executed operation into an 18-hour debacle that cost the lives of 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis. There was no backup plan. There was no hedge against uncertainty and friction. And Americans died, despite remarkable bravery and tactical competence.

Of course, we are often assured today that technology permits us to avoid the effects of friction. For instance, the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Owens, has made the extraordinary claim that “technology could enable US military forces in the future to lift the ’fog of war’.…battlefield dominant awareness — the ability to see and understand everything on the battlefield — might be possible.” But the good admiral is wrong. In masterful study of Clausewitzian friction several years ago, Barry Watts argued persuasively that “general friction” is a “built-in or structural feature of combat processes” arising from the fact that war is a human enterprise. “The propensities and constraints built into humankind by biological evolution provide a wellspring for general friction that seems likely to persist at some level as long as Homo Sapiens do.”

The other fissure, a corollary of the first, is the one between advocates of air power and information operations on the one hand and supporters of the idea that a U.S. victory will require a substantial ground force. The former tend to support either the “bolt from the blue” or the “Afghan Model”—the employment of heavy and accurate air power in conjunction with allied fighters, supported by a small number of U.S. special-operations forces (SOF) to plan and coordinate air strikes. The latter favors what has come to be called “Desert Storm II” or “Desert Storm Lite”—a campaign involving a force of some 250,000 US troops with a substantial ground component.

Critics of the former contend that the Afghan model will not work in Iraq because there is nothing like a “Northern Coalition” in Iraq around which an operation can coalesce and that the “bolt from the blue” smacks too much of the plan that failed in Somalia. Critics of the latter argue that cautious military planners lack an appreciation of the degree to which technological advances have improved the military’s capabilities over the recent decade. I myself favor something along the lines of the “bolt from the blue.” Boldness often pays high dividends despite the risk. Patton understood and acted on Frederick the Great’s dictum: “l’audace, l’audace, toujour l’audace.” So did MacArthur at Inchon, Stonewall Jackson in his Shenandoah Valley campaign, and Grant at Vicksburg. Still, I understand the objections of those who advocate a larger ground component.

Which plan prevails will be determined by more than assumptions about the effectiveness of air power and information operations vs. ground forces. It will depend upon a great deal on geopolitical circumstances. If we can’t count on Turkey and Saudi Arabia for basing support, the ability of the United States to employ land-based air power will by no means be impossible, but will be rendered much more difficult. The U.S. has established air bases in Qatar and Kuwait, but they lack the capacity of the Saudi bases from which U.S. aircraft operated during Desert Shield/Desert Storm a decade ago.


Regardless of what plan is chosen, a major consideration must be war termination. The United States has not done very well with war termination over the last decade. While U.S. forces easily have defeated adversaries on the battlefield, the resulting military successes infrequently have been translated into political ones. A case in point is the Gulf War.

A major cause of this less-than-stellar U.S. record in war termination can be traced to an all-too-literal application of the guidelines for the use of force first articulated in 1984 by Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger and reiterated by Colin Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the case of the Gulf War, the Weinberger-Powell doctrine resulted in military objectives that were too narrow to accomplish the necessary political outcome. The emphasis on quickly ending the hostilities—for public relations reasons rather than for politico-military considerations — ensured that even these narrow objectives were not achieved.

The political goals of the Gulf War as laid down by President Bush and the other coalition leaders were 1) the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait and 2) the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s power base in Iraq. Both of these political objectives required the destruction of the Republican Guard, upon which Saddam’s power was thought to rest. The destruction of the Republican Guard was the primary military objective of the ground war.

Given the dependence of the political objectives upon attainment of the military ones, President Bush originally planned to allow his theater combatant commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, to determine the timing of the war’s end. Even with the problems associated with the execution of his plan, U.S. forces were poised to “close the gate” on the Republican Guard on February 28, 1991.

But then came the order to end the ground war. To many of those “on the ground,” the order seemed premature, driven not by politico-military considerations—the objective of destroying the Republican Guard, but by public-relations concerns—the desire to end the ground war in 100 and not have the world see the U.S. “pour it on.”

By law, the military leadership is obligated to provide the civil authorities with the best possible military advice. The record indicates that Gen. Powell, who was responsible for providing this military advice to President Bush, recommended an end to hostilities based not on military considerations, but on public relations ones—concern about how the world perceived what was turning into a one-sided rout by American forces.

It seems clear that to have fulfilled his statutory obligations, Gen. Powell should have asked his field commanders if the military objective of the war had been achieved, i.e. had the Republican Guard been destroyed? Receiving a negative reply, he should have recommended that the ground war continue. Had the president rejected his advice, Powell still would have done his duty while reflecting the view of his field commanders closest to the action.

But the field commanders who could have told the chairman and the president that the Republican Guard had not been destroyed were not consulted. Instead, they were presented with a fait accompli. Given the deterioration of the U.S. position in the Gulf since the war, Gen. Powell’s failure to render his best military advice ranks as a failure of major proportions.

As Clausewitz observed over a century and a half ago, “in war, the result is never final.…The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.” Today we are reaping what we sowed in 1991 by not effecting a regime change then. Any plan to fight in Iraq must not repeat this mistake.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.