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Advice from Clausewitz: Get a Strategy for Syria

Whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama is leading the United States into war with Syria.  It is unclear whether he conceives of U.S. military strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people as war, but that’s precisely what it would be.  To quote Carl von Clausewitz’s ...

Image: By Karl wilhelm Wach (www.nodulo.org/ec/2007/n066p13.htm) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: By Karl wilhelm Wach (www.nodulo.org/ec/2007/n066p13.htm) [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama is leading the United States into war with Syria.  It is unclear whether he conceives of U.S. military strikes in response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people as war, but that's precisely what it would be.  To quote Carl von Clausewitz's masterpiece, On War, war is "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."  As the long-dead Prussian soldier and scholar reminds us, war is not merely blind violence, but the use of force to achieve a political aim against a thinking, responsive enemy.  Clausewitz similarly counsels that "No one starts a war -- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so -- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."

Congressional debate over whether to authorize the president to use force in Syria can serve a useful purpose if it forces the administration to clarify what it hopes to achieve by using force against Syria and how it intends to achieve that object: in other words, our political aims and our strategy to achieve them.  Specifically, Congress should ask the administration to answer the following questions:

What objectives does the administration seek to achieve in Syria? How does it anticipate that the use of force will lead to the fulfillment of those objectives? What is the administration's theory of victory?  That is, what are the assumptions that link the use of military force to the achievement of victory? How does the administration believe that Syria will respond to the U.S. use of force? What does the administration believe could go wrong?  What unexpected things could happen? And finally, how does the administration anticipate that this will end?

Whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama is leading the United States into war with Syria.  It is unclear whether he conceives of U.S. military strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people as war, but that’s precisely what it would be.  To quote Carl von Clausewitz’s masterpiece, On War, war is "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."  As the long-dead Prussian soldier and scholar reminds us, war is not merely blind violence, but the use of force to achieve a political aim against a thinking, responsive enemy.  Clausewitz similarly counsels that "No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."

Congressional debate over whether to authorize the president to use force in Syria can serve a useful purpose if it forces the administration to clarify what it hopes to achieve by using force against Syria and how it intends to achieve that object: in other words, our political aims and our strategy to achieve them.  Specifically, Congress should ask the administration to answer the following questions:

  • What objectives does the administration seek to achieve in Syria?
  • How does it anticipate that the use of force will lead to the fulfillment of those objectives?
  • What is the administration’s theory of victory?  That is, what are the assumptions that link the use of military force to the achievement of victory?
  • How does the administration believe that Syria will respond to the U.S. use of force?
  • What does the administration believe could go wrong?  What unexpected things could happen?
  • And finally, how does the administration anticipate that this will end?

After all, Clausewitz reminds us, in war it is crucial "not to take the first step without considering the last."

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