Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:03 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:03 | SYDNEY

Ends forgotten in debate over means


Hugh White

19 February 2010 11:33

I agree with Jim Molan about the 'near-constant' mistakes made in Western military interventions to stabilise weak and failing states. Yes, governments almost always commit fewer forces than needed, and yes they almost never commit the non-military elements needed for a comprehensive solution to instability. 

But I do not accept Jim's implied conclusion, that we should simply be willing to commit enough forces — whatever it takes — to succeed.

It's a matter of balancing ends and means, and I think the balance seldom works out in favour of interventions. We have little or no reason to expect that Western countries like Australia have interests engaged in places like Afghanistan which are big enough to justify committing sufficient resources for long enough to offer any serious likelihood of success. 

That reflects two judgements. First, to offer a reasonable chance of success would require an effort, military and civilian, much larger than we have been willing to make, and for much longer. Second, our interests in places like Afghanistan are not important enough to our overall security to justify that kind of effort. 

For Jim to make his case he needs to address these two judgments directly. He needs to say how much effort would be needed to give a reasonable chance of success, and why our interests justify that level of effort. 

Knowing Jim as an old friend and valued colleague, I suspect he will be inclined to reply that, having committed ourselves to a job, we should do whatever it takes to finish it. In an operational or tactical commander, this kind of single-minded pursuit of an assigned mission is highly admirable. For a strategic-level decision maker, it is an abrogation of the responsibility to ensure that the ends justify the means.

That is what strategic decision-making is all about, why it is so different to operational and tactical level leadership, and why (if I may be so bold) it sometimes helps to have civilians involved.

One might say that we keep getting into the situations Jim deplores because the strategic questions are not properly addressed in the first place. The way to avoid Jim's 'near-constant' mistakes is not to apply more effort regardless of the scale of our interests, but to avoid interventions where the ends do not justify the means required. It is an old lesson that history never stops teaching. One might even call it a 'near-constant'.

Photo by Flickr user futurowoman, used under a Creative Commons license.