The thuddingly obvious place to start is Clausewitz's famous aphorism, War is the continuation of politics by other means. Or, as it has been sometimes translated, War is the use of force to compel our opponent to do our will.
Either way, Clausewitz is saying something simple and obvious: Military actions are judged by their political outcomes. Simple and obvious points get lost in the proverbial heat of battle, however, which is why people cite Clausewitz as often as they do.
As someone with first-hand experience of the Napoleonic Wars, Carl von Clausewitz spoke with a substantial authority on this point. Napoleon may have been the greatest general of his age, but in the end, the Napoleonic Wars were a failure. Certainly, they came close to establishing the French Imperium as the dominant power in Europe. But the Imperium collapsed, from the puppet states in Italy and elsewhere to the whole imperial regime in Paris. Napoleon's own decisions to take action against his opponents, from Spain to Russia, often undermined his own aims. Was Russia a threat to France? Maybe so, but at the same time, one could argue, military action against Russia was ill-conceived, and certainly the results were catastrophic.
In short, Napoleon was a great general, but a lousy statesman....Which in turn, calls into question his generalship. Defeating the Russian army and occupying Moscow was worse than meaningless--Napoleon's Russian campaign (like Hitler's) cost him his army and, in the long term, his empire. Military action may have been Napoleon's preferred tool, but it wasn't the tool for everything.
Napoleon isn't alone in making this mistake. Countless governments have committed the same error, believing that "doing something" with military force, taking some action against an adversary, was better than doing nothing. However, "doing something" is a question of actions, not results. Results, again, are measured in political outcomes: the survival and dominance of the French Imperium; the restoring of the Union and the end of slavery; the removal of fascist and expansionist regimes in Europe and Japan; the safety of American citizens from terrorist attack.
Another great thinker, Max Weber, made essentially the same point in his essay, Politics As a Vocation. Weber thought the unique characteristic of the state, as distinct from other types of organizations in a society, was that the state had monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. Another obvious point, maybe, but an equally profound one. States do other things, but political leaders need to be ready to use all means, including force (both police and military action), to achieve results.
Weber wrote this essay with a great deal of passion, so he has some very memorable things to say, such as this passage:
Whoever wants to engage in politics at all, and especially in politics as a vocation...lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence. The great virtuosi of acosmic love of humanity and goodness, whether stemming from Nazareth or Assisi or from Indian royal castles, have not operated with the political means of violence. Their kingdom was 'not of this world' and yet they worked and still work in this world.
And this one:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth --that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes.
Weber was no pacifist; instead, he was arguing that politicians have a tough gautlet ahead of them, one that they need to be both passionate and clear-headed to traverse. And the ultimate rule of politics, he argues, is to use all means, including violence, to achieve results.
So, what does this have to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror?
Quite a lot. First, and most obviously, we need to have a definition of victory--something so far we've lacked. How do we know when we've won? is perhaps the most basic question, but one that, oddly, many people never ask.
Here's a mental exercise everyone should try: Phrase in one or two sentences how to measure "wining the war on terror." Is it by reducing the number of terrorist victims each year? Killing a desired number of terrorists? Shutting down a particular number of terrorist organizations? Eliminating terrorist groups altogether?
Now, having defined the goal, ask yourself the obvious next question: Is the Bush Administration's strategy going to achieve this goal?
I don't presume to know the right answer for everyone, and I certainly don't expect everyone to agree. But perhaps our common starting point, as fellow citizens, is to try to reach some consensus on this point. Otherwise, we'll continue to talk past one another, because we're really talking about different wars.
But here's a point on which we can all agree:
Taking action, in and of itself, is not going to guarantee success.
That's not the same as arguing for inaction. (Far from it, if you know anything about me.) It is, however, making another obvious point: "Just do something!" is a flight from reality, not realism. The exhiliration of defeating the enemy on the battlefield, or watching the enemy's casualty statistics rise, isn't a guarantee of success. Napoleon learned that lesson the hard way, in the icy wastes of Russia. Hotter regions offer the opportunity to learn the same lesson in the same brutal fashion.