General Attempt to Campaign by the Book

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2004

Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire
By General Wesley K. Clark
Public Affairs
240pp., $25

General Wesley Clark’s book, Winning Modern Wars, reminds me of a story about a young fellow in the 18th century who sent an essay he had written to a famous writer, asking for his assessment. The great man replied: “I have read your essay and find it both interesting and original. Unfortunately, the part that is original is not interesting and the part that is interesting is not original.”

So it is with Winning Modern Wars.

The first part of the book is descriptive – interesting, but not original. As a former high-ranking US Army officer who, as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), directed NATO’s war against Serbia in Kosovo, and who in this and other assignments was intimately involved in strategic, operational, and force planning, Clark provides a useful account of the planning and execution of the allied campaign that toppled Saddam. However, this has been done better by Wick Murray and Bob Scales in their book, The Iraq War, and by Bing West and Ray Smith in theirs, The March Up.

The second part of Winning Modern Wars purports to be analytical. But while this section may be original, it’s not interesting – or even factual. In fact, it’s little more than a partisan screed against the Bush administration.

In his introduction, General Clark denies any partisan intent, but the book speaks for itself. From today’s vantage point, it appears to be little more than an ill-timed campaign document designed to support his bizarre attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the 2004 presidential election.

There are many legitimate reasons to criticize the foreign and defense policies of the Bush administration, but Winning Modern Wars would have us believe that the president dangerously derailed the nation’s security policy and diverted resources from the war on terrorism to the dead-end enterprise in Iraq. He blames Bush for everything he believes has gone wrong, and gives him no credit for anything that has gone right, including major steps toward transforming the US military from a Cold War force to one more suited to the current and likely future security environment.

In Clark’s world, vulnerability to terrorism is all George Bush’s fault. Of course, Bush had only been in office for eight months when Al Qaida struck on 9/11. The threat had been incubating during the Clinton years, but that administration had done little or nothing to address it. The most Clark can say about the Clinton administration’s inattention to the emerging terrorist threat is that “in retrospect, it [is] clear that he could have done more.”

Clark is a member in good standing of the “Bush lied” school – an outlook based on the claim that the president and his advisers had intended to invade Iraq from the very beginning, and knowingly deceived Congress and the American people in order to drag them into this unnecessary war. As evidence for this, he cites a 1998 letter from an organization called the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) calling on president Clinton to remove Saddam from power. Those who signed the letter included Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

I HAPPEN to have written a paper for a PNAC working group (chaired by the eminent Yale classicist and historian Donald Kagan) that called for a more aggressive grand strategy. But what I wrote was a non-player until after 9/11. The fact is that until 9/11, Bush and his national security team advocated classical “selective engagement.”

In all of his speeches, both as a candidate and as president before 9/11, George Bush criticized the open-ended nature of the Clinton doctrine, taking it to task for its indiscriminate use of military force in instances not involving vital national interests. The pre-9/11 Bush doctrine stressed foreign policy retrenchment and military “transformation.”

So Clark is wrong. As a former military planner, he surely knows that military staffs are always developing and updating operational plans for a number of contingencies – since 1991 no doubt including an invasion of Iraq – but that such planning is indicative of prudence, not a desire to execute the plan.

The “Bush lied” school has taken a number of hits lately. First of all, evidence keeps popping up that the Bush administration said nothing different than what the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats were saying in 1998. The fact is that the Clinton administration talked a big game on terrorism but did very little. Accordingly, congressional Democrats could afford to talk tough on terrorism because they knew Clinton’s response to it would involve nothing more than “drive-by” cruise missile attacks.

In addition, reports of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission have established that the “sophisticated” view which serves as the centerpiece of Clark’s critique of Bush’s strategy – that there was no cooperation between Iraq and Islamist terrorists because the former was a secular state – is incorrect. Despite the atrocious misreporting of the US press, both reports related numerous instances of the sort of cooperation that the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center said “could carry great dangers to the United States.”

Those who wish to know more about these links should consult Stephen Hayes’s new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America.

THE FINAL chapter of Winning Modern Wars attacks the “imperial” policies of the Bush administration. Clark contends that “the very idea of [a] New American Empire in 2003 shows an ignorance of the real and existing virtual empire that America has created since the end of World War II.”

Well, General Clark shows an ignorance of an international relations theory called “hegemonic stability.” The overarching goal of US foreign policy since World War II has been to create and maintain a liberal world order. The United States has largely been able to achieve this goal by establishing and securing a commonality of interests among a broad array of states, while deterring the use of force by potential aggressors. The underpinning of US policy and strategy is hegemonic stability theory, which holds that a liberal world order does not arise spontaneously. It requires a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security.

As Donald Kagan has observed, “history seems to teach that good will, unilateral disarmament, the avoidance of alliances, teaching and preaching the evils of war by those states who seek to preserve peace are to no avail. What seems to work best is the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens of and responsibilities required to achieve that power.”

The Bush doctrine is in keeping with this observation. Its underlying assumption is that the world is a dangerous place in which peace is maintained by the power of the strong. Accordingly, US power is good not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world; for the United States to be fully secure and prosperous, everyone must be secure and prosperous. Such a liberal world order has been possible only because the US was able and willing to make the effort to create and maintain it.

A final thought on this book: Clark is best known for his “famous victory” over Serbia when he was SACEUR. Indeed, Kosovo serves as the model for Modern Wars. According to Clark, modern war is “enabled by high-precision air and ground combat capabilities,” and reflects “the importance of operating with other nations in strong alliances, minimizing friendly casualties and civilian losses, and making optimum use of a battlefield almost instantly visible to the media around the world. Effectively prosecuted, modern war [offers] the opportunity for decisive success without having to use decisive force.”

Unfortunately for Clark, Kosovo is not a very good template for evaluating the Iraq war, or any other war for that matter. First of all, it was an anomaly. The conditions that prevailed in Kosovo are unlikely to be replicated anywhere else; they certainly weren’t during the Iraq war. Clark is sadly mistaken. Stealth and precision did indeed reduce the number of sorties necessary to attack important targets, nearly eliminating the loss of NATO manned aircraft. But the operational requirement to minimize allied casualties dictated the strategic shape of the air war. NATO aircraft flew at high altitudes and avoided strikes against Serb ground forces in Kosovo to preclude losses. Thus the non-existent NATO casualties were achieved at the cost of thousands of Kosovars butchered by Milosevic’s forces, and nearly a million refugees.

It should also be added that Kosovo violated every principle that Clark charges the Bush administration of ignoring when it came to Iraq. Unlike the latter, it was launched without congressional authorization. Clinton did not seek UN approval. And while it was fought in the name of NATO, the alliance acted only because of US prodding, and the Americans provided most of the military muscle.

Like most of Winning Modern Wars, Clark’s most original contribution to the debate over US national security turns out to be devoid of meaningful content. Perhaps before addressing “modern war” again, Clark should read another book by a military man – On War by Carl von Clausewitz. There he would learn that the nature of war is universal; calling it “modern” is singularly unhelpful. In Clausewitz’s formulation, war is a violent clash between opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other. This cyclical interaction occurs in a realm of chance and chaos.

One would think that a soldier of General Clark’s stature and experience would understand this, but if Winning Modern Wars is any indication, he never made Clausewitz’s acquaintance.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.