J. KARL MILLER: U.S. should do its job right in Libya

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 4, 2011

In arguing whether we should be involved in Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, I decline to engage in second-guessing inasmuch as decisions of that magnitude are obviously above my pay grade. Nevertheless, one may question the president's decision to put forces in harm's way without asking Congress for approval, as did his predecessor. President Obama has said he would have voted against the Iraq deployment.

Nor will I fault his declining the recommendations of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen who opposed the action against Libya. The duties of the secretary and the chairman are those of advising and carrying out the orders of the president who, as commander in chief, is responsible for the decision.

Nevertheless, as not only a student of warfare but also as one who has been involved in the planning and execution of military operations, I am troubled with the manner in which this one is being prosecuted. Not only was it too little and too late, it also violated at least three of the nine principles of war — objective, unity of command and simplicity.

The first principle of war requires a clearly defined mission, one that directs a decisive and attainable mission understood by all participants. The second principle applicable to this offensive is unity of command, placing all forces under a single commander with the authority to direct all forces in a unity of effort to achieve a unified purpose. The third principle, simplicity, requires clear and uncomplicated plans directed by simple and easy-to-understand orders to minimize confusion.

Arguably, establishment of the no-fly zone entailed the best of intentions; however, there has yet to be a clearly defined mission or objective. Are we there to protect the civilian population against Gadhafi's minions, to assist the rebels, to oust Gadhafi or merely to make a humanitarian statement? If removal of the dictator is not the objective, what will be the signal for victory?

As to unity of command, this is reminiscent of a re-enactment of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first" routine. Initially, the U.S. was nominally in charge of this coalition's effort, approved by the Arab League and the United Nations to provide the bulk of the combat power. The president stated that responsibility will end in a "few days," to be passed off to someone: NATO, Europeans or a coalition thereof.

Initially expressing reluctance for the task, NATO, after some obvious arm-twisting, agreed to command the no-fly zone, hardly a difficult undertaking since what is left of Libya's air force would not threaten Lower Slobbovia. This leaves, for now at least, the U.S. doing the heavy lifting, i.e., leading the attacks on Gadhafi's ground forces, installations and weaponry. Sadly, Turkey and Arab League member states refuse to take an active role.

The only saving grace in this foolish "waging of war by political committee" derives from the fact that Gadhafi and his tinpot dictatorship pose no threat other than to his own country. NATO has no desire to assume the leadership; France does not wish to be subordinate to NATO; Germany has pulled its warships out of the coalition; and Italy commands little respect from the rest. The contribution from the Arab League remains iffy to nonexistent.

Obama has made no secret of his belief in global consensus in foreign policy in a world in which America is obliged to operate in concert with the other world powers — "no" to unilateralism. And in deference to his conception of the world's unfavorable notion toward "American imperialism," his course in foreign policy is to be the "unBush" in deferring to a perceived global public opinion.

That may come to pass in some future administration, but it is hardly prudent in today's world. The United States remains the only world power participating in Operation Odyssey Dawn with the command and control apparatus to coordinate the efforts of weapons systems, tactics, logistics and the combat power to enforce a decision. Additionally, contrary to a popularly published theme from our detractors, the rest of the free world still looks to U.S. leadership in times of crisis.

Consequently, if participation in Odyssey Dawn is not in our national interest, we should have opted out. However, inasmuch as we elected to accept the United Nations' mandate to intervene on behalf of the Arab League, the U.S. is now obligated to do that job and do it right the first time. It would be not only an evasion of responsibility but also an embarrassment to the United States to put other than our very best foot forward.

Finally, when can we expect the mainstream media to resurrect the previously popular Colin Powell quote "If you break it, you buy it"? Does anyone smell a double standard?

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Ellis Smith March 30, 2011 | 6:52 a.m.

We should be glad that the first three principles of war WERE followed during World War II. Had they not been, today citizens of this country east of the Rocky Mountains might be speaking German and those living west of the Rocky Mountains might be speaking Japanese.

But, who knows, maybe when a country and its government become rich enough and sloppy enough it is felt no longer necessary to bother with principles - military or otherwise.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance March 30, 2011 | 11:27 a.m.

Wow 7 years ago, questioning the president during a time of conflict would of labeled you anti-American. What a bunch of hypocrites.

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm March 30, 2011 | 11:56 a.m.

@ Tim

Fox News said it was okay this time since we have a progressive as president instead of a regressive.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 30, 2011 | 3:52 p.m.

Actually, I think the goals "objective, unity of command and simplicity" were met at the start of the Bush wars. Of course, for me, Bush's initial Iraq objective was all wrong. He should have left after decapping Iraq's leadership with the warning "Get your s--t together 'cause we'll come back a 3rd time if we have to."

I think Miller's underlying theme is that President Obama has run headlong (at a high rate of speed) into the world's reality cliff. Ivory-tower campaign rhetoric is one thing...making tough decisions about life-and-death is another. Heck, I'm starting to like and appreciate the guy. He must be in complete shock going from a community organizer to a "present" senator to the highest office in the world; he's starting to remind me of GWB which ain't a bad thing. After all, what has changed in the last 2.5 years?

Not much. Except we're one day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter dontcha call [us] 'cause [we] can't go, [we] owe our soul to the company stow....

Where's Tennessee Ernie Ford when ya need him?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 30, 2011 | 4:13 p.m.

@Michael Williams:

I prefer some of those old United Miner Workers of America organizing songs myself. :)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 30, 2011 | 4:18 p.m.

Yeah, those songs were from an era where unions were sorely needed. Some great songs came outa that misery.

I wonder what we'll write over the next 20 years?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 30, 2011 | 4:59 p.m.

Michael Williams:

Probably something along the lines of "We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl."

Dr. Mary Reidmeyer of MS&T conducts a popular five day summer camp for teenage girls on the subject of materials science.

Mary introduces herself as the "Materials Girl."

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger March 30, 2011 | 5:11 p.m.

Just for the sake of discussion, I wonder if those hallowed principles of war are as relevant today as they were in, say WW2. The enemies we engage are no longer nation states with clear designs on world domination; rather, they're amorphous, diverse, and dispersed, often lacking any central command and control. Waging war with often vague battle-lines, complicated by an inability to determine friend from foe (think uniforms, for example) create situations that don't seem to mesh with these principles. What do you think?

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 30, 2011 | 6:56 p.m.

hank ottinger - I know you are just offering up discussion, but you should watch out, you could make folks like me proud of you. You would not want that, but, then again maybe you want us to Think, only because, progressive, liberal, democrat, President, B. Obama is the latest subject of your of your now stated opinion? Tell me it ain't so!

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger March 30, 2011 | 7:16 p.m.

Frank, I have no idea what you mean. My post has nothing to do with Obama, nor was it intended to. It was simply to elicit some opinion about the relevancy of these historic, Clausewitzian "principles of war."

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson March 30, 2011 | 8:45 p.m.

I don't think this is the Hopey-Changey-ism we've been waiting for. MW is spot on - the rhetoric of the campaign trail has run smack into the wall of reality. (As it has with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Gitmo, and so on.) I have mixed feelings about this "kinetic military action", as the POTUS's spinners call it. I tend to come down in support of my President, at the end of the day, though.

If our air campaign is successful (however that will be measured), as was the one in Kosovo, that victory will have a hundred fathers. If Gaddhafi at least hangs on, or contines to gain ground from rebels, that will be perceived as a defeat, and it will be an orphan. Or, in American political circles, it will appear to have spawned from an Obama-Clinton parentage.

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 30, 2011 | 8:48 p.m.

Sorry Hank,I didn't realize you had become so neutral. W. Bush is criticized for breaking with "Clausewitzian "principles of war", tho he did so,for the same reasons you name above. You may have posted your concerns, then as well and not being as connected to the Missourian as now, I probably missed it.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 30, 2011 | 9:06 p.m.

Hank: The author of this article could answer that question better than any of us, but I'll put my 2 cents in even though I prolly don't know squat about the topic. Never stopped me before, tho.

My guess is that the art of war is relatively unchanged whether you are physically fighting a guy in a bar fight or a million-man army. There may be some tactical changes, but the overall strategy remains intact....let the other guy commit himself, strike hard, strike fast, take out the eyes and brains, cut off the legs (supplies), and you can't worry about collateral damage. If you do the lose.

Every time.

As stated....just a WAG.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 31, 2011 | 5:16 a.m.

Two thoughts:

1- One of the great absurdities today is that "we're going to have a 'military action' but we're going to avoid having civilian casualties." That's not going to happen. Hell, you'll recall, is paved with good intentions.

2- Both the United States and NATO have put themselves in a box. No matter what the "official" line may be they now have no choice but to actively support the Libyan rebels and defeat the present Libyan government. Not to do so would be both a political and humanitarian disaster. I'm not suggesting that supporting the rebels is the wrong choice, but only that the United States and NATO no longer HAVE a choice.

Don't you love push button warfare? Starting in 1945 we were assaulted with, "Future wars will be push button wars." So in 1950 comes the "Korean Conflict," and damned if those "push buttons" didn't look just like people: American "GIs" and "Gyrenes."

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush March 31, 2011 | 9:34 a.m.

You can tell it's summer; it's time for beach wear.
I can see the flip-flops from my house.

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson March 31, 2011 | 11:57 a.m.

I agree, Gregg Bush. Flip flops appear to be in style, whether it is candidate Obama/President Obama, or early-March Newt/late-March Newt.

For one to seek out consistency in foreign policy opinion these days, it seems that Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are the best bets. Which is odd.

It appears the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave can now see reality from his house.

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller March 31, 2011 | 12:00 p.m.

There are 9 Principles of War. While not all are equally applicable in every conflict, the principles of Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise and Simplicity remain as crucial to success in battle as demonstrated by Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Generals Pershing, Eisenhower and MacArthur. Much as the laws of gravity, thermodynamics and Murphy, some things do not materially change. Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz could step into today's strategy and tactics without missing a step.

I have not made this an "us vs them" proposition inasmuch as it would lose its value as a teaching point but, would some 'splain to me which Clausewitzian principles "W" broke with?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller March 31, 2011 | 12:03 p.m.

By the way, I appreciate the objectivity and civility employed by most in the commentary and criticism of the column. Much obliged

(Report Comment)

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