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The fog of war in Libya


The phrase "fog of war" is attributed to the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz and it entered the culture because it describes perfectly the difficulty military leaders have in ascertaining the facts on the ground. Throughout World War II, for example, the reported number of planes shot down during the Battle of Britain far exceeded the actual number of planes shot down, but we only learned the actual totals when the war was over and we had access to German archives.

During the battle itself, a combination of wishful thinking and simultaneous reports of the same incident combined to produce the higher, incorrect number.

Another example: We now know that the Tet Offensive in Vietnam was a tactical disaster for the Viet Cong, but at the time, it demonstrated their resilience sufficiently to become a great strategic victory, sapping the U.S. forces of their desire to continue.

The fog of war is certainly at work in Libya, but the fog is thicker in the Arabian desert. Conflicting reports, most of them from CNN and other news sources, detail who is advancing and who is retreating, where the bombs are falling and at whom the tanks are shooting.

But the thickness of the fog is not a mere consequence of battle. It is a consequence of politics. The fog in Libya stems primarily from the fact that it is impossible to assess the military situation in terms of success or failure when the goals of the military operation are themselves shrouded in uncertainty.

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Last night, on the CNN show “In the Arena,” Elliot Spitzer tried to highlight this fact, but he overstepped, contrasting the President’s words with those of Deputy National Security Advisor Dennis McDonough, but it was clear that McDonough was addressing a specific question and Spitzer was merely looking to foment trouble. (And, why, oh why, did CNN get rid of the beautiful and super-smart Kathleen Parker on the show? She had a sense of perspective that is much needed precisely in instances like this when Spitzer’s go-for-the-jugular style can as easily distort as clarify!) But, it is hard to feel sorry for the administration when it has undoubtedly been unclear about our war aims in Libya.

In a democracy, it is especially important, I believe, that our political leaders be clear and convincing in explaining their rationales for war. It is also important in a democracy to somehow indicate how the entire populace can share the burdens we thrust upon our men and women in uniform.

It was one of the most shocking aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that at their commencement, none of us were asked to do anything, not even pay for the two conflicts. There was no rationing of certain goods, no higher taxes, no sense of shared sacrifice. This risks turning our military into mercenaries, not technically of course, but in our sense of our connection to them. In a democracy, if a country goes to war, the whole country must somehow contribute.

The Obama administration has not, so far as I can tell, even used the word “war” to describe what we are doing in Libya. This is no doubt a part of their effort to minimize American involvement in the effort, allowing the Europeans to do most of the heavy lifting.

I have no problem with allowing the Europeans to take the lead, in part because they are the ones reliant upon Libyan oil, not us, so their interests are more directly involved. But for the United States, our involvement is not -- and cannot -- be only about our interests.

The reason to be in Libya must be to topple a regime that is murdering its own people and which lacks all popular support. This is not a Civil War. The Gaddafi “loyalists” are paid mercenaries, a few local henchmen and those cronies whose involvement with Gaddafi over the years has left sufficient blood on their hands that they know any post-Gaddafi regime will bring them before the bar of justice.

We can debate until the cows come home the moral justification for this war. But it is beyond obvious that the time has come -- indeed it is past time -- for the President to clearly articulate why our troops are currently deployed in the skies above Libya.

It is past time for NATO to announce to the people of Libya whether we are there to erect a shield around Benghazi or if we will support them in their effort to retake their country. In this instance, too much of the fog of war has been self-generated by confusion about our aims.

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