From Churchill’s lips to Trump’s ears
Secrecy should be part of U.S. military action
In the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump claimed that U.S. foreign policy regularly fails to engage “the element of surprise” when it comes to engaging the Islamic State, or ISIS. According to Mr. Trump, our enemies “have all left” the Iraqi city of Mosul because ISIS was given warning months in advance.
ISIS’ leaders may have indeed emptied Mosul, though their subordinates have been fighting a no-holds-barred battle for the city for a month. Mr. Trump’s comments raise a valid point, however, about how much secrecy should be part of U.S. foreign policy. While he cited Gens. Douglas MacArthur and George Patton in the debate, saying they are “spinning in their graves when they see the stupidity of our country,” it is perhaps another World War II leader from whom Mr. Trump, now the president-elect, should take advice.
More than 70 years ago, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill led his beleaguered nation to victory over Nazi forces that had overwhelmed Europe. Certainly, invading France and Germany were critical to victory then, just as retaking Mosul is both symbolically and strategically important for U.S. and Iraqi forces today.
Churchill did not explicitly announce his plans like a cable news pundit. Unconcerned about alienating the press, he focused on his military goals — something the 45th commander in chief should also do as he faces multiple overseas conflicts.
Churchill’s thoughts on this matter are perhaps no better expressed than in “The Churchill Documents, May-December 1944,” to be published by Hillsdale College Press next year: “I have recently been perturbed at reported statements from Naples, one in the Corriere, explaining that we are about to attack. Is it really necessary to tell the enemy this? Of course, he may possibly think we are such fools that it is an obvious blind, but this is a dangerous chance to take.”
Critics of Mr. Trump’s comments told The New York Times that attacking Mosul has long been a major priority for the U.S. and Iraq. According to the Times, “It would be impossible to hide a force of about 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops that have been massing for weeks on the outskirts of Mosul, gradually encircling the city while conducting artillery fire and airstrikes to soften up enemy defenses in advance of the main ground offensive.”
But as Churchill noted, why erase any doubt of the coming attack and its timeline? His thoughts are further explained by a scenario similar to that of the Mosul offensive. In a letter criticizing a press report about pre-DDay bombing “in Northern France,” he urged Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory to “take special steps to ensure that all those concerned realize the extreme importance of preventing the issue of any statement which might give the enemy any assistance in his efforts to discover our future intentions.”
It was quite clear at the time of the letter — May 25, 1944 — that Allied forces were going into France in the near future. But Churchill was unwilling to give Axis forces any information they hadn’t earned themselves prior to the attack.
This is not a strategy just useful in war. To act as The New York Times advises would be as foolish as the New England Patriots handing over their game plan to Baltimore next week. After all, the Ravens know that Tom Brady will throw the ball, and sometimes he’ll hand it off.
Instead, Bill Belichick understands and applies the Churchill principles. As Churchill noted, it “is a dangerous chance to take” to assume the enemy knows all.
As we inaugurate a third administration that will oversee battles in the Middle East against Muslim terrorists, it is incumbent upon President-elect Trump not to repeat the mistakes of the last two presidencies, and to remember that war is war, first and foremost. Richard Langworth is senior fellow for the Churchill Project at Hillsdale College.