A diplomatic initiative triggered by Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks has temporarily stopped the clock on U.S. military strikes against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's regime. Nevertheless, the previous week’s tumultuous debate over the appropriate U.S. response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria shows that there is no longer a consensus on the purpose of American military power or even the meaning of "war." But there is equally little agreement over what should replace the old ideas.
For most of American history, the purpose of national military power gradually expanded as the strategic environment evolved and the United States assumed a more prominent global role. Initially, the armed forces were to defend the homeland and American commerce, bring some order to the frontier and keep disorder in nearby regions to a tolerable level. In the 20th century, the military’s role expanded to preventing a hostile power from dominating vital regions of the world, specifically Europe and the Pacific Rim. During the Cold War, American military power kept the Warsaw Pact from invading Western Europe—a traditional mission—but also sought to help counter Soviet proxy states and movements. This demanded new military skills like counterinsurgency and security force assistance, and new military organizations like the special operations forces.
Once the United States was the only superpower left standing, there seemed to be no limits on what the military could be asked to do. This included preventing aggression by "rogue states" as well as helping stop humanitarian disasters. The armed forces became, as current Navy recruiting commercials phrase it, a "global force for good." Counterinsurgency fell out of fashion while multinational peacekeeping became all the rage. Since there were enough resources to fund military humanitarian action and no pressing enemies, this was generally accepted by the American public. The limits of military humanitarian action, though, were shaped by the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. After the Somalia fiasco, policymakers were unwilling to use or threaten to use force when the absence of an effective state allowed a humanitarian disaster, though force remained an option to prevent a state from abusing its own people.