I remember reading a story (which I can’t track down with things at hand) in which an anxious aide went to Napoleon with the news that another nation had joined a coalition against France. Rather than being dismayed, Napoleon said (I’m quoting from memory): “Excellent. My success is now assured.”
To put it differently, although diplomats and many politicians swoon over alliances and coalitions, the attitude of military commanders is far more ambivalent–and often dubious and dismissive. That’s because although coalitions may bring numbers, and sometimes signal that the war is not intended to advance a particular nation’s interests, they are often antithetical to military success.
Coalition action is often contrary to the principles of war. Most notably, it is often devastating to unity of command. Sometimes, through great effort in the face of an existential, total struggle, as with the UK and US in WWII, these problems can be managed and overcome.
That is definitely not the case today. The current coalition attacking Libya is a catastrophe. An absolute catastrophe. Nobody wants to lead; the natural leader of the coalition, the US, is most anxious not to. It is an insult to Alphonse and Gaston to compare these efforts to the cartoon Frenchmen’s mutual deference. Everybody has different ideas regarding objective. Everybody is saying something different. Differences in opinion are fracturing one of the most successful and enduring alliances in history (NATO).
What’s more, this incoherence and lack of leadership is having corrosive effects on other crucial military principles. Most notably–the objective. Who knows what that is? And with no well-defined objective, military force is being employed in a diffuse and scattered way–contrary to the principle of mass. Moreover, the least-common-denominator tendencies inherent in a coalition mean that the most timorous tend to exert disproportionate influence–contrary to the principle of the offensive.
The most likely outcome of this exercise in how-not-to-run-a-military campaign is a protracted stalemate between a weak but intensely focused dictator fighting for survival and a gaggle of rag-tag militias backed up by squabbling powers with a bad case of the Jupiter Complex. And it is difficult to see how a stalemate will alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe, which is the ostensible purpose of this operation. Indeed, as Wretchard writes, it is more likely to create or exacerbate such a disaster.
Some other Napoleonic advice is apropos here: “If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Dithering about with no leadership, no direction, no objective, and no decisive use of military power makes things worse, not better. You don’t get points for high-minded intentions if your actions wreak havoc. Obscuring intentions and actions in a fog of asinine euphemisms doesn’t change the realities. If you start to take down Khaddafy, take down Khaddafy. Otherwise, shut the hell up and stay the hell home. Half-assed half measures get people killed for no good purpose, and all the Nobel Peace Prizes in the world do not change that brutal fact.
Another piece of Napoleonic wisdom was also ignored: “The reason I beat the Austrians is that they did not know the value of five minutes.” Obama et al wasted five weeks, not a mere five minutes. What’s being done now might have been decisive five weeks ago–but no longer.
Obama and his people yammer about shaping the conditions. They are shaping conditions, all right–for a debacle.