Stephen M. Walt

Churchill’s advice

I’m been teaching about World War I this week, and came across some thoughts from Winston Churchill that seemed relevant to the enduring debate over where and how to use military force. Churchill was no pacifist — in fact, in the middle of World War I, he confessed: I think a curse should rest on ...

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I’m been teaching about World War I this week, and came across some thoughts from Winston Churchill that seemed relevant to the enduring debate over where and how to use military force.

Churchill was no pacifist — in fact, in the middle of World War I, he confessed:

I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing & shattering the lives of thousands — & yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.”

Yet Churchill also understood that war was an unpredictable business. As Barack Obama strives to reposition U.S. foreign policy — and especially our military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan — and as voices continue to demand that he do more in Pakistan, confront Iran, or clean up Darfur, Churchill’s warnings about the uncertainties that surround the use of force ring true. Here’s an excerpt from My Early Life:

Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations — all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”

George W. Bush kept a bust of Churchill in his office, but it seems patently obvious that he never took Churchill’s warning to heart. Barack Obama has had the bust removed, we’re told, but I’d like to think that somebody might tell him about Sir Winston’s advice.

The uncertainties that attend the use of force grow when war occurs on unfamiliar social and political terrain; that is, when we do not know very much about our adversaries or their motivations. They increase even more when success depends on what third parties decide to do — will they support us, remain neutral, pretend to help but do nothing, or join the other side?

To take an obvious example, increasing our commitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan is risky because we still do not understand these societies very well and because success requires that we get effective help from the ruling authorities in each country, and it is hard to be confident that we will. Moreover, the main tools at our disposal — Special Forces and air strikes against suspected militants — may be tactically effective but a strategic misstep, if they kill civilians along with bad guys and thereby generate greater opposition over time.

So when his advisors, or American “allies” or assorted special interest groups come and whisper in Obama’s ear about the need for military action, I hope somebody reminds him of Churchill’s warning. And because the same logic applies to other countries who may think that war is the answer to their problems, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Churchill got read in a few other capitals too.

Photo: Wikipedia 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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