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What MacArthur’s Farewell Teaches Us Today

Posted By Alan W. Dowd On April 29, 2011 @ 12:36 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 12 Comments

It was 60 years ago this month that Gen. Douglas MacArthur delivered his farewell address to a joint session of Congress, effectively closing the book on a consequential and controversial public life. What do the words an “old soldier” have to do with today? More than you might think.

What brought MacArthur to the House chamber in April 1951—and brought his career as a soldier and general to an abrupt end—is fairly well-known: He openly challenged the commander-in-chief, President Harry Truman, who, with an eye on the Soviet Union’s global capabilities, was committed to “limited war” and “police action” in Korea. MacArthur, on the other hand, advocated expansion of the war in Korea to targets in China, criticized “those who advocate appeasement and defeatism in Asia” and famously declared, “There is no substitute for victory.” Toward that end, as Niall Ferguson details in “Colossus”, MacArthur called for blockades of China, attacks on Chinese airbases, the use of Taiwanese forces against Mainland China and the deployment of atomic weapons against China.

Even MacArthur’s critics, Ferguson among them, concede that the general’s proposed strategy was “seriously discussed” after his departure and, in a sense, adopted to bring the war to an end. Just months after MacArthur was ousted, Truman threatened to blockade China and contemplated atomic weapons. In fact, upon his election, general-turned-president Dwight Eisenhower raised the possibility of an atomic strike on China to bring the Chinese to heel, conveying the message to China via India. They took the threat seriously, and an armistice was quickly signed.

In other words, MacArthur’s proposals were not the problem; it was how and where he aired them that was the problem. And to preserve the principle of civilian control over the military, Truman had to dismiss MacArthur. The Truman-MacArthur showdown is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that MacArthur and Truman embodied the tension that has been at the very heart of our republic since the founding. After all, the first president was a general, a war hero, a conqueror. He wouldn’t be the last. Moreover, the Founders divided war-making authority, opening the way to disputes between the executive and legislative and between civilians and the military. Although the Constitution made civilian control over the military paramount—and thankfully so—it led to a system that encourages great deference to military command.

The Limits of Time-Limited War

This century’s version of “police action” is on display in Libya and Afghanistan. The White House, for example, calls Libya a “time-limited, scope-limited” war. NATO’s description of the Libya intervention declares, incredibly, that “NATO is impartial in this operation.”

Over in Afghanistan, the enemy is using Pakistan as a safe haven, allies fly fighter-bombers without bombs and shout warnings before engaging the enemy, and President Barack Obama concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

To be sure, Libya and Afghanistan in 2011 are not the same as Korea in 1951 in terms of American lives lost. However, as in Korea, committing just enough force not to lose but not enough force to win doesn’t make sense or deliver results, which is why Washington would do well to adopt the best of MacArthur—his single-mindedness about victory and unapologetic views on pursuing it.

“If not permitted to destroy the enemy,” wherever he may be, MacArthur explained in 1951, victory is simply not possible. “War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.”

In Libya, destroying the enemy means targeting the regime’s center of gravity, namely, Qaddafi and Tripoli. Yet ABC News has described the situation as “calm in the west, chaos in the east.” The recent strikes near Tripoli were noteworthy precisely because they are so rare.

If, as Obama has declared, Qaddafi can no longer be permitted to lead Libya, and if Qaddafi is directing the attacks against civilians that rightly outrage the world, then the objective must be removing Qaddafi from power. And the strategy and tactics must lead to that goal. As Gen. James Dubik, who trained up the Iraqi army in 2007-08, observes, “The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya….In war, leadership is not exercised from the rear by those who seek to risk as little as possible.”

In Afghanistan, destroying the enemy means eliminating safe havens in Pakistan, eliminating self-defeating rules of engagement, showing certain allies the door, and recognizing that “vital national interests” don’t have expiration dates.

MacArthur rejected the notion that advocating such a strategy makes a person a “warmonger.” To the contrary, he explained that incremental, indecisive strategies prolong war and usually delay the inevitable. “Once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end.”

Can anyone argue that we are doing that in Afghanistan and Libya?

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.


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