If President Obama had not intervened in Libya a week ago, we would indeed probably now be looking at Benghazi as his Srebrenica -- except that his Cairo speech would have given him an additional load of responsibility, of seeming to bear false promises. It likely would have been an abiding blot on his presidency. For that reason alone, I think he had to intervene.
All the military grumbling I am hearing now about the need for strategic clarity reminds me of early in World War II, when Generals Marshall and Eisenhower could not see the need to land in North Africa, but FDR did, both to keep the Russians in the war and to convey to Americans that we were fighting the Germans. As it turned out, this was also the right move for tactical reasons, because the U.S. military needed to learn a lot, and it did in Africa and Sicily. Had it instead tried to go directly into France in 1943, when Nazi airpower was still strong, D-Day might well have been a disaster.
These notes I get from military officers demanding clarity of goals and stated strategic purposes puzzle me. The nature of war is ambiguity and uncertainty. I worry that such demands are really a fancy form of shirking. It makes me wonder if before getting married, these complaining colonels draw up pre-nuptials that state:
1. How long the marriage is going to last, with a clear exit strategy of how it ends -- divorce, death, or other.
2. Detailed discussions of roles and responsibilities, including how much notice must be given to the spouse if an extramarital affair is to be undertaken.
3. Description of the marriage's integration into the larger community.
4. Statement of how much time and emotion is to be devoted to the enterprise.
As my hero Triumph says, I kid, I kid. But there is a serious point to be made: There is a basic contradiction here between these officers' insistence on clarity and the ambiguous and uncertain nature of warfare.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.