Magazine article The Spectator

There Is One Thing Abour War Which Clausewitz Did Not Think, but Which Bush Must

Magazine article The Spectator

There Is One Thing Abour War Which Clausewitz Did Not Think, but Which Bush Must

Article excerpt


A head of government's natural instinct, in a crisis like this, is to hold meetings of experts: generals, officials and so on. If he is wise, he will also consult experts who are no longer with us. In this case, the people who have been good at winning battles or at writing about how to win them.

People such as Bonaparte, for example; but if President Bush, the head of government whom I have in mind, consults him, he will find himself advised against too much consulting. `Do not hold a war council,' says one of the maximes put together some years after Bonaparte's death from his random sayings, `but ask the opinion of everybody individually.'

Bonaparte does not explain why he is against war councils. We can infer that he thinks that in a meeting the experts say what they think they should say, or say what they think is to their future advantage, rather than what they really think. If so, Napoleon's is good advice. Mr Bush must by now have presided over many councils of war since 11 September in which generals, cabinet members and advisers say things that are less or more moderate, or less or more `right-wing', than the speakers really are. They do so safe in the knowledge that theirs is not the final responsibility. Only Mr Bush has that. He is commander-in-chief. And as Bonaparte says, `In war, only the commander-in-chief understands the importance of certain things. ... A collective government has less simple ideas and takes longer to decide.'

So poor Mr Bush would discover that here is an expert, Napoleon (as expert in the art of war as anyone in history), who is advising him to be wary about how he consults other experts. This is a measure of how difficult Mr Bush's situation is.

Another example: he cannot even know whether a war is what he is fighting. Is it, instead, an insurrection? If the Taleban made possible the attack on the twin towers, it is a war. Wars, except when they are civil wars, are between states, and the Taleban rules a state. If it is a war, Mr Bush should consult the experts, living and dead, on wars.

But we do not know for sure whether it is. Such evidence as we have shows that the conspiracy that led to 11 September was planned as much within the United States as without. It was perpetrated by people who had a legal right to be in the United States. We strongly suspect that they were helped and financed from without: Afghanistan, almost certainly;

Iraq perhaps. But we cannot be sure that aid from a nation state was essential to the outrage. We can envisage it having happened without such aid. Al-Qa'eda is not a nation state. It is a force, or a conspiracy, which crosses national boundaries. In any case, militant Islam, like Bolshevism in the Soviet Union's earliest years and in the conspiratorial years leading up to 1917, does not believe in national boundaries. It aspires to a kingdom of all the world. We can imagine the United States, either alone or by arming and aiding the Northern Alliance, overthrowing the Taleban, killing bin Laden, perhaps going on to overthrow Saddam's regime, only for there soon to be another Islamic terrorist outrage on United States soil.

Let us assume that it is a war. How would the experts of old advise Mr Bush? Only one of Bonaparte's maximes seems especially relevant: `In mountain warfare the attacker is disadvantaged; even in an offensive war, the art consists in not having anything but defensive fights and in forcing the enemy to attack. …

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